On arriving in London, George had the good fortune to sublet a flat in Ebury Street. The young military gentleman who condescended to let him have the place possessed one of those resounding double-jointed names that one comes across so often among the members of the upper or would-beupper branches of English society. George was never able to get all the mouth-filling syllables of that grand name quite straight, but suffice it to say that his landlord was a Major Somebody Somebody Somebody Bixley–Dunton.
He was a good-looking man, tall, young, ruddy, with the lean and well-conditioned figure of a cavalryman. He was an engaging kind of fellow, too — so engaging that when he made the arrangements which permitted George to take over the premises, he managed to insinuate into his bill for rent a thumping sum that covered all the electricity and gas he had used in the preceding two quarters. And electricity and gas, as George was to discover, came high in London. You read and worked by one, sometimes not only through the night, but also through the pea-soup opacity of a so-called day. And you bathed and shaved and cooked and feebly warmed yourself by the other. George never did figure out just exactly how the engaging Major Bixley–Dunton did it, but he managed it so adroitly that George was half-way back to America some six months later before it dawned on his unsuspecting mind that he had occupied the modest dwelling only two quarters but had paid four whacking assessments for the whole year’s gas and electricity.
George thought he was getting a bargain at the time, and perhaps he was. He paid Major Bixley–Dunton in quarterly instalments — in advance, of course — at the rate of two pounds ten shillings a week, and for this sum he had the advantage of being the sole occupant, at night at least, of a very small but distinctly authentic London house. It was really a rather tiny house, and certainly a very inconspicuous one, in a section noted for the fashionable spaciousness and magnificence of its dwellings. The building was three storeys tall, and George had the top floor. Below him a doctor had his offices, and the ground floor was occupied by a small tailor shop. These other tenants both lived elsewhere and were present only during the day, so at night George had the whole house to himself.
He had a good deal of respect for the little tailor shop. The venerable and celebrated Irish writer, Mr. James Burke, had his pants pressed there, and George had the honour of being present in the shop one night when the great man called for them. It was a considerable moment in Webber’s life. He felt that he was assisting at an impressive and distinguished ceremony. It was the first time he had ever been in such intimate contact with such exalted literary greatness, and most fairminded people will agree that there are few things in the world more intimate than a pair of pants. Also, even at the moment that Mr. Burke entered the shop and demanded his trousers, George was requesting the return of his own. This homely coincidence gave him a feeling of perfectly delightful understanding and identity of purpose with a gentleman whose talents had for so many years been an object of his veneration. It gave him an easy and casual sense of belonging to the inner circle, and he could imagine someone saying to him:
“Oh, by the way, have you seen anything of James Burke lately?”
“Oh yes,” he could nonchalantly reply, “I ran into him the other day in the place where we both go to have our pants pressed.”
And night after night as he worked in his sitting-room on the third floor, at that hour the solitary lord and master of that little house, toiling on the composition of a work which he hoped, but did not dare believe, might rival in celebrity some of James Burke’s own, he would get at times the most curious and moving sense of companionship, as if a beneficent and approving spirit were there beneath that roof with him; and through the watches of the night it would speak to him with the eloquence of silence, saying:
“Toil on, son, and do not lose heart or hope. Let nothing you dismay. You are not utterly forsaken. I, too, am here — here in the darkness waiting, here attentive, here approving of your labour and your dream.”
Ever sincerely yours,
James Burke’s Pants
One of the most memorable experiences of George Webber’s six months in London was his relationship with Daisy Purvis.
Mrs. Purvis was a charwoman who lived at Hammersmith and for years had worked for “unmarried gentlemen” in the fashionable districts known as Mayfair and Belgravia. George had inherited her, so to speak, from Major Bixley–Dunton, and when he went away he gave her back to him, to be passed on to the next young bachelor gentleman — a man, George hoped, who would be worthy of her loyalty, devotion, idolatry, and humble slavery. He had never had a servant in his life before. He had known Negro servants during his boyhood in the South; since then he had had people come in once or twice a week to clean up the various places where he had lived; but never before had he owned a servant body and soul, to the degree that her interests became his interests and her life his life; never before had he had anyone whose whole concern was the preservation of his comfort and welfare.
In appearance, Mrs. Purvis might have been the prototype of a whole class. She was not one of those comic figures so often pictured in the drawings of Belcher and Phil May, those pudgy old women who wear shawls and little Queen Victoria bonnets perched upon their heads, whose most appropriate locale seems to be the pub, and whom one actually does see in London pubs, sodden with beer and viciousness. Mrs. Purvis was a self-respecting female of the working class. She was somewhere in her forties, a woman inclined to plumpness, of middling height, fair-haired, blue-eyed, and pink-complexioned, with a pleasant, modest face, and a naturally friendly nature, but inclined to be somewhat do her dignity with strangers. At first, although she was at all times courteous, her manner towards her new employer was a little distant. She would come in in the morning and they would formally discuss the business of the day — what they were going to have for lunch, the supplies they were going to “git in”, the amount of money it would be necessary to “lay out”.
“What would you like for lunch today, sir?” Mrs. Purvis would say. “‘Ave you decided?”
“No, Mrs. Purvis. What would you suggest? Let’s see. We had the chump chop yesterday, didn’t we, and the sprouts?”
“Yes, sir,” Mrs. Purvis would reply, “and the day before — Monday, you may recall — we ‘ad rump steak with potato chips.”
“Yes, and it was good, too. Well, then, suppose we have rump steak again?”
“Very good, sir,” Mrs. Purvis would say, with perfect courtesy, but with a rising intonation of the voice which somehow suggested, delicately and yet unmistakably, that he could do as he pleased, but mat she rather thought his choice was not the best.
Feeling this, George would immediately have doubts. He would say:
“Oh, wait a minute. We’ve been having steak quite often, haven’t we?”
“You ‘ave ‘ad it quite a bit, sir,” she would say quietly, not with reproof, but with just a trace of confirmation. “Still, of course ——” She would not finish, but would pause and wait.
“Well, rump steak is good. All that we’ve had was first-rate. Still, maybe we could have something else today, for a change. What do you think?”
“Should think so, sir, if you feel that way,” she said quietly. “After all, one does like a bit of variety now and then, doesn’t one?”
“Of course. Well, then, what shall it be? What would you suggest, Mrs. Purvis?”
“Well, sir, if I may say so, a bit of gammon and peas is rather nice sometimes,” with just a trace of shyness and diffidence, mixed with an engaging tinge of warmth as she relented into the informality of mild enthusiasm. “I ‘ad a look in at the butcher’s as I came by this mornin’, and the gammon was nice, sir. It was a prime bit, sir,” she said now with genuine warmth. “Prime.”
After this, of course, he could not tell her that he had not the faintest notion what gammon was. He could only look delighted and respond:
“Then, by all means, let’s have gammon and peas. I think it’s just the thing today.”
“Very good, sir.” She had drawn herself up again; the formal intonation of the words had put her back within the fortress of aloofness, and had put him back upon his heels.
It was a curious and disquieting experience, one that he was often to have with English people. Just when he thought that finally the bars were down and the last barriers of reserve broken through, just when they had begun to talk with mutual warmth and enthusiasm, these English would be back behind the barricade, leaving him to feel that it was all to do over again.
“Now for your breakfast tomorrow mornin’,” Mrs. Purvis would continue. “‘Ave you decided what you’d like?”
“No, Mrs. Purvis. Have we anything on hand? How are our supplies holding out?”
“They are a bit low, sir,” she admitted. “We ‘ave eggs. There is still butter left, and ‘arf a loaf of bread. We’re gittin’ low on tea, sir. But you could ‘ave eggs, sir, if you like.”
Something in the faint formality of the tone informed him that even though he might like to have eggs, Mrs. Purvis would not approve, so he said quickly:
“Oh, no, Mrs. Purvis. Get the tea, of course, but no more eggs. I think we’ve had too many eggs, don’t you?”
“You ’ave, sir, you know,” she said gently —“for the last three mornin’s, at any rate. Still —” Again she paused, as if to say that if he was determined to go on having eggs, he should have them.
“Oh, no. We mustn’t have eggs again. If we keep on at this rate, we’ll get to the point where we can’t look an egg in the face again, won’t we?”
She laughed suddenly, a jolly and full-throated laugh. “We will, sir, won’t we?” said Mrs. Purvis, and laughed again. “Excuse me for larfin’, sir, but the way you put it, I ‘ad to larf. It was quite amusin’, really.”
“Well, then, Mrs. Purvis, maybe you’ve got some ideas. It’s not going to be eggs, that’s one thing sure.”
“Well, sir, ‘ave you tried kippers yet? Kippers are quite nice, sir,” she went on, with another momentary mellowing into warmth. “If you’re lookin’ for a change, you could do worse than kippers. Really you could, sir.”
“Well, then, we’ll have kippers. They’re the very thing.”
“Very good, sir,” She hesitated a moment and then said: “About your supper, sir — I was thinkin’——”
“Yes, Mrs. Purvis?”
“It just occurred to me, sir, that, seein’ as I’m not here at night to cook you a ‘ot meal, we might lay in somethin’ you could prepare for yourself. I was thinkin’ the other day, sir, workin’ as you do, you must get ‘ungry in the middle of the night, so it wouldn’t be a bad idea, would it, sir, if you could have somethin’ on ‘and?”
“I think it would be a wonderful idea, Mrs. Purvis. What do you have in mind?”
“Well, sir,” she paused briefly again, reflecting quietly, “we might git in a bit of tongue, you know. A bit of cold tongue is very tasty. I should think you’d find it most welcome in the middle of the night. Or a bit of ‘am. Then, sir, you would ‘ave your bread and butter and your mustard pickle, and I could even git in a jar of chutney, if youlike, and you know ‘ow to make tea yourself, don’t you, sir?”
“Of course. It’s a good idea. By all means, get in tongue or ham and chutney. Is that all, now?”
“Well, sir,” she reflected a moment longer, went to the buffet sideboard, opened it, and looked in. “I was just wonderin’ ‘ow you are for beer, sir . . . Ah-h,” she exclaimed, nodding with satisfaction, “it is gittin’ a bit low, sir. You ‘ave only two bottles left. Shall we lay in a ‘arf-dozen bottles?”
“Yes. No — wait a minute. Better make it a dozen, then you won’t have to be running out to order it again so soon.”
“Very good, sir.” Again the formal rising intonation, this time, he thought, with approval. “And what do you prefer, the Worthington or Bass?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Which is better?”
“They’re both first-rate, sir. Some people prefer one kind and some another. The Worthington, perhaps is a trifle lighter, but you won’t go wrong, sir, whichever one you order.”
“All right, then, I’ll tell you what you do — suppose you order half a dozen of each.”
“Very good, sir.” She turned to go.
“Thank you, Mrs. Purvis.”
“‘Kew,” she said, most formally and distantly now, and went out quietly, closing the door gently but very firmly after her.
As the weeks went by, her excessive formality towards George began to thaw out and drop away. She became more and more free in communicating to him whatever was on her mind. Not that she ever forgot her “place”. Quite the contrary. But, while always maintaining the instinctive manner of an English servant towards her master, she also became increasingly assiduous to her slavish attentions, until at last one would almost have thought that her duty towards him was her very life.
Her devotion, however, was not quite as whole and absolute as it appeared to be. For three or four hours of the day she had another master, who shared with George her service and her expense. This was the extraordinary little man who kept doctor’s offices on the floor below. In truth, therefore, Mrs. Purvis had a divided loyalty, and yet, in a curious way, she also managed to convey to each of her employers a sense that her whole-souled obligation belonged to him, and to him alone.
The little doctor was a Russian of the old regime, who had been a physician at the court of the Czar, and had accumulated a large fortune, which of course had been confiscated when he fled the country during the revolution. Penniless, he had come to England, and had made another fortune by a practice about which Mrs. Purvis, with a kind of haughty aloofness mixed with loyalty, had invented a soothing little fiction, but concerning which the doctor himself became in time quite candid. From one o’clock in the afternoon until four or thereabouts, the door-bell tinkled almost constantly, and Mrs. Purvis was kept busy padding up and down the narrow stairs, admitting or ushering out an incessant stream of patients.
George had not been long in the place before he made a surprising discovery concerning this thriving practice. He and the little doctor had the same telephone, by a plug-in arrangement which permitted each to use the instrument in his own quarters while sharing the same number and the same bill. Sometimes the telephone would ring at night, after the doctor had departed for his home in Surrey, and George observed that the callers were always women. They would demand the doctor in voices that varied from accents of desperate entreaty to tones that fairly crooned with voluptuous and sensual complaint. Where was the doctor? When George informed them that he was at his home, some twenty miles away, they would moan that it couldn’t be true, that it wasn’t possible, that fate could assuredly not play them so cruel a joke. When told that it was indeed so, they would then sometimes suggest that perhaps George himself could render them some assistance on his own account. To these requests he was forced to reply, often with reluctance, that he was not a physician, and that they would have to seek help in some other quarter.
These calls sharpened his curiosity, and he began to keep his eye peeled during the doctor’s office hours in the afternoon. He would go to the window and look out each time the door-bell rang, and in a little while he became convinced of what he had already begun to suspect, “that the doctor’s practice was devoted exclusively to women”. Their ages ranged from young womanhood to elderly haghood, they were of all kinds and conditions, but the one thing that was true of these patients was that they all wore skirts. No man ever rang that door-bell.
George would sometimes tease Mrs. Purvis about this unending procession of female visitors, and would openly speculate on the nature of the doctor’s practice. She had a capacity for self-deception which one often encounters among people of her class, although the phenomenon is by no means confined to it. No doubt she guessed some of the things that went on below stairs, but her loyalty to anyone she served was so unquestioning that when Geprge pressed her for information her manner would instantly become vague, and she would confess that, although she was not familiar with the technical details of the doctor’s practice, it was, she believed, devoted to “the treatment of nervous diseases”.
“Yes, but what kind of nervous diseases?” George would ask. “Don’t the gentlemen ever get nervous, too?”
“Ah-h,” said Mrs. Purvis, nodding her head with an air of knowing profundity that was very characteristic of her. “Ah-h, there you ‘ave it!”
“Have what, Mrs. Purvis?”
“‘Ave the hanswer,” she said. “It’s this Moddun Tempo. That’s what Doctor says,” she went on loftily, in that tone of unimpeachable authority with which she always referred to him and quoted his opinions. “It’s the pace of Moddun Life — cocktail parties, stayin’ up to all hours, and all of that. In America, I believe, conditions are even worse,” said Mrs. Purvis. “Not, of course, that they really are,” she added quickly, as if fearing that her remark might inadvertently have wounded the patriotic sensibilities of her employer. “I mean, after all, not ‘avin’ been there myself, I wouldn’t know, would I?”
Her picture of America, derived largely from the pages of the tabloid newspapers, of which she was a devoted reader, was so delightfully fantastic that George could never find it in his heart to disillusion her. So he dutifully agreed that she was right, and even managed, with a few skilful suggestions, to confirm her belief that almost all American women spent their time going from one cocktail party to another — in fact, practically never got to bed.
“Ah, then,” said Mrs. Purvis, nodding her head wisely with an air of satisfaction, “then you know what this Moddun Tempo means!” And, after a just perceptible pause: “Shockin’ I calls it!”
She called a great many things shocking. In fact, no choleric Tory in London’s most exclusive club could have been more vehemently and indignantly concerned with the state of the nation than was Daisy Purvis. To listen to her talk one might have thought she was the heir to enormous estates that had been chief treasures of her country’s history since the days of the Norman conquerors, but which were now being sold out of her hands, cut up piece-meal, ravaged and destroyed because she could no longer pay the ruinous taxes which the government had imposed. She would discuss these matters long and earnestly, with dire forebodings, windy sighs, and grave shakings of the head.
George would sometimes work the whole night through and finally get to bed at six or seven o’clock in the dismal fog of a London morning. Mrs. Purvis would arrive at seven-thirty. If he was not already asleep he would hear her creep softly up the stairs and go into the kitchen. A little later she would rap at his door and come in with an enormous cup, smoking with a beverage in whose soporific qualities she had the utmost faith.
“‘Ere’s a nice ‘ot cup of Ovaltine,” said Mrs. Purvis, “to git you off to sleep.”
He was probably nearly “off to sleep” already, but this made no difference. If he was not “off to sleep”, she had the Ovaltine to “git him off”. And if he was “off to sleep”, she woke him up and gave him the Ovaltine to “git him off” again.
The real truth of the matter was that she wanted to talk with him, to exchange gossip, and especially to go over the delectable proceedings of the day’s news. She would bring him fresh copies of The Times and the Daily Mail, and she would have, of course, her own tabloid paper. Then, while he propped himself up in bed and drank his Ovaltine, Mrs. Purvis would stand in the doorway, rattle her tabloid with a premonitory gesture, and thus begin:
“Shockin’, I calls it!”
“What’s shocking this morning, Mrs. Purvis?”
“Why, ’ere now, listen to this, if you please!” she would say indignantly, and read as follows: “‘It was announced yesterday, through the offices of the Messrs. Merigrew & Raspe, solicitors to ‘Is Grace, the Duke of Basingstoke, that ‘Is Grace ‘as announced for sale ‘is estate at Chipping Cudlington in Gloucestershire. The estate, comprisin’ sixteen thousand acres, of which eight thousand are in ‘untin’ preserve, and includin’ Basingstoke Hall, one of the finest examples of early Tudor architecture in the kingdom, ‘as been in the possession of ‘Is Grace’s family since the fifteenth century. Representatives of the Messrs. Merigrew & Raspe stated, ‘owever, that because of the enormous increase in the estate and income taxes since the war, ‘Is Grace feels that it is no longer possible for ’im to maintain the estate, and ‘e is accordingly puttin’ it up for sale. This means, of course, that the number of ‘Is Grace’s private estates ‘as now been reduced to three, Fothergill ‘All in Devonshire, Wintringham in Yawkshire, and the Castle of Loch McTash, ‘is ‘untin’ preserve in Scotland. ‘Is Grace, it is said, ‘as stated recently to friends that if somethin’ is not done to check the present ruinous trend towards ‘igher taxation, there will not be a single great estate in England remainin’ in the ‘ands of its original owners within a ‘undred years . . .
“Ah-h,” said Mrs. Purvis, nodding with an air of knowing confirmation as she finished reading this dolorous item. “There you ‘ave it! Just as ‘Is Grace says, we’re losin’ all our great estates. And what’s the reason? Why the owners can no longer afford to pay the taxes. Ruinous ‘e calls ’em, and ‘e’s, right. If it keeps up, you mark my words, the nobility’ll ‘ave no place left to live. A lot of ’em are migratin’ already,” she said darkly.
“Migrating where, Mrs. Purvis?”
“Why,” she said, “to France, to Italy, places on the Continent. There is Lord Cricklewood, livin’ somewhere in the south of France. And why? Because the taxes got too ‘igh for ’im. Let all ‘is places go ’ere. Ah-h, lovely places they were, too,” she said, with appetising tenderness. “And the Earl of Pentateuch, Lady Cynthia Wormwood, and ‘Er Ladyship, the Dowager Countess of Throttlemarsh — where are they all? They’ve all left, that’s where they are. Packed up and got out. Let their estates go. They’ve gone abroad to live. And why? Because the taxes are too ‘igh. Shockin’, I calls it!”
By this time Mrs. Purvis’s pleasant face would be pink with indignation. It was one of the most astonishing demonstrations of concern George had ever seen. Again and again he would try to get to the bottom of it. He would bang down his cup of Ovaltine and burst out:
“Yes, but good Lord, Mrs. Purvis, why should you worry so much about it. Those people aren’t going to starve. Here you get ten shillings a week from me and eight shillings more from the doctor. He says he’s retiring and going abroad to live at the end of this year. I’ll be going back to America pretty soon after that. You don’t even know where you’ll be or what you’ll be doing this time next year. Yet you come in here day after day and read me this stuff about the Duke of Basingstoke or the Earl of Pentateuch having to give up one of his half-dozen estates, as if you were afraid the whole lot of them would have to go on the dole. You’re the one who will have to go on the dole if you get out of work. Those people are not going to suffer, not really, not the way you’ll have to.”
“Ah-h yes,” she answered quietly, in a tone that was soft and gentle, as if she were speaking of the welfare of a group of helpless children, “but then, we’re used to it, aren’t we? And they, poor things, they’re not.”
It was appalling. He couldn’t fathom it. He just felt as if he’d come up smack against an impregnable wall. You could call it what you liked — servile snobbishness, blind ignorance, imbecilic stupidity — but there it was. You couldn’t shatter it, you couldn’t even shake it. It was the most formidable example of devotion and loyalty he had ever known.
These conversations would go on morning after morning until there was scarcely an impoverished young viscount whose grandeurs and miseries had not undergone the reverent investigation of Mrs. Purvis’s anguished and encyclopaedic care. But always at the end — after the whole huge hierarchy of saints, angels, captains of the host, guardians of the inner gate, and chief lieutenants of the right hand had been tenderly inspected down to the minutest multicoloured feather that blazed in their heraldic wings — silence would fall. It was as if some great and unseen presence had entered the room. Then Mrs. Purvis would rattle her crisp paper, clear her throat, and with holy quietness pronounce the sainted name of “‘E”.
Sometimes this moment would come as a sequel to her fascinated discussion of America and the Moddun Tempo, as, after enlarging for the hundredth time upon the shocking and unfortunate lot of the female population in the United States, she would add:
“I must say, though,” tactfully, after a brief pause, “that the American ladies are very smart, aren’t they, sir? They’re all so well-turned out. You can always tell one when you see one. And then they’re very clever, aren’t they, sir? I mean, quite a number of ’em ‘ave been received at court, ‘aven’t they, sir? And some of ’em ‘ave married into the nobility, too. And of course”— her voice would fall to just the subtlest shade of unction, and George would know what was coming —“of course, sir, ‘E . . . ”
Ah, there it was! Immortal “‘E”, who lived and moved and loved and had his being there at the centre of Daisy Purvis’s heaven! Immortal “‘E”, the idol of all the Purvises everywhere, who, for their uses, their devotions, had no other name and needed none but “‘E”.
“Of course, sir,” Mrs. Purvis said, “‘E likes ’em, doesn’t ‘E? I’m told ‘E’s very fond of ’em. The American ladies must be very clever, sir, because ‘E finds ’em so amusin’. There was a picture of ‘Im in the news just recently with a party of ‘Is friends, and a new American lady was among ’em. At least I’d never seen ’er face before. And very smart she was, too — a Mrs. Somebody-or-other — I can’t recall the name.”
Again, something in the day’s news would bring the reverent tone to her voice and the glow of tenderness to her face, as:
“Well, I see by the paper ’ere that ‘E’s got back from the Continent. I wonder what ‘E’s up to now.” And suddenly she laughed, a jolly and involuntary laugh that flushed her pink cheeks almost crimson and brought a mist to her blue eyes. “Ah! I tell you what,” she said, “‘E is a deep one. You never know what ‘E’s been up to. You pick the paper up one day and read where ‘E’s visitin’ some friends in Yawkshire. The next day, before you know it, ‘E turns up in Vienna. This time they say ‘E’s been in Scandinavia — it wouldn’t surprise me if ‘E’s been over there visitin’ one of them young princesses. Of course”— her tone was now tinged with the somewhat pompous loftiness with which she divulged her profounder revelations to the incondite Mr. Webber —“of course there’s been talk about that for some time past. Not that ‘E would care! Not ’Im! ‘E’s too independent, ’E is! ‘Is mother found that out long ago. She tried to manage ‘Im the way she does the others. Not ’Im! That chap’s got a will of ‘Is own. ‘E’ll do what ‘E wants to do, and no one will stop ‘Im — that’s ‘ow independent ‘E is.”
She was silent a moment, reflecting with misty eyes upon the object of her idolatry. Then suddenly her pleasant face again suffused with ruddy colour, and a short, rich, almost explosive laugh burst from her as she cried:
“The dev-ill! You know, they do say ‘E was comin’ ‘ome one night not long ago, and”— her voice lowered confidingly —“they do say ‘E’d ‘ad a bit too much, and”— her voice sank still lower, and in a tone in which a shade of hesitancy was mixed with laughter, she went on —“well, sir, they do say ‘E was ‘avin’ ‘Is troubles in gittin’ ‘ome. They say that really ‘E was ‘avin’ to support ‘Imself, sir, by the fence round St. James’s Palace. But they do say, sir, that — ooh! ha-ha-ha!”— she laughed suddenly and throatily. “You must excuse me, sir, but I ‘ave to larf when I think of it!” And then, slowly, emphatically, with an ecstasy of adoration, Mrs. Purvis whispered: “They say, sir, that the bobby on duty just outside the palace saw ‘Im, and came up to ‘Im and said: ‘Can I ‘elp you, sir?’ But not ’Im! ‘E wouldn’t be ‘elped! ‘E’s too proud, ’E is! That’s the way ‘E’s always been. I’ll tell you what —‘E is a dev-ill!” And, still smiling, her strong hands held before her in a worn clasp, she leaned against the door and lapsed into the silence of misty contemplation.
“But, Mrs. Purvis,” George remarked presently, “do you think he’ll ever get married? I mean, do you really, now? After all, he’s no chicken any longer, is he? And he must have had lots of chances, and if he was going to do anything about it ——”
“Ah!” said Mrs. Purvis, in that tone of somewhat lofty recognition that she always used at such a time. “Ah! What I always say to that is, ‘E will! ‘E’ll make up ‘Is mind to it when ‘E ‘as to, but not before! ‘E won’t be driven into it, not ‘Im! But ‘E’ll do it when ‘E knows it is the proper time.”
“Yes, Mrs. Purvis, but what is the proper time?”
“Well,” she said, “after all, there is ‘Is father, isn’t there? And ‘Is father is not as young as ‘e used to be, is ‘e?” She was silent for a moment, diplomatically allowing the tactful inference to sink in by itself. “Well, sir,” she concluded very quietly, “I mean to say, sir, a time will come, sir, won’t it?”
“Yes, Mrs. Purvis,” George persisted, “but will it? I mean, can you be sure? You know, you hear all sorts of things — even a stranger like myself hears them. For one thing, you hear he doesn’t want it very much, and then, of course, there is his brother, isn’t there?”
“Oh, ’im,” said Mrs. Purvis, “’im!” For a brief interval she remained silent, but had she filled an entire dictionary with the vocabulary of bitter and unyielding hostility, she could not have said more than she managed to convey in the two letters of that mutilated little pronoun “’im.”
“Yes,” George persisted somewhat cruelly, “but after all, he wants it, doesn’t he?”
“‘E does,” said Mrs. Purvis grimly.
“And he is married, isn’t he?”
“‘E is,” said Mrs. Purvis, if anything a trifle more grimly than before.
“And he has children, hasn’t he?”
“‘E ’as, yes,” said Mrs. Purvis, somewhat more gently. In fact, for a moment her face glowed with its look of former tenderness, but it grew grim again very quickly as she went on: “But ’im! Not ’im!” She was deeply stirred by this imagined threat to the ascendancy of her idol. Her lips worked tremulously, then she shook her head with a quick movement of inflexible denial and said: “Not ’im.” She was silent for a moment more, as if a struggle were going on between her desire to speak and the cool barrier of her natural reserve. Then she burst out: “I tell you, sir, I never liked the look of ’im! Not that one — no!” She shook her head again in a half-convulsive movement; then, in a tone of dark confidingness, she almost whispered: “There’s somethin’ sly about ‘is face that I don’t like! ‘E’s a sly one, ‘e is, but ‘e don’t fool me!” Her face was now deeply flushed, and she nodded her head with the air of a person who had uttered her grim and final judgment and would not budge from it. “That’s my opinion, if you ask me, sir! That’s the way I’ve always felt about ’im. And ‘er. ’Er! She wouldn’t like it, would she? Not ‘arf she wouldn’t!” She laughed suddenly, the bitter and falsetto laugh of an angry woman. “Not ’er! Why, it’s plain as clay, it’s written all over ‘er! But a lot of good it’ll do ’em,” she said grimly. “We know what’s what!” She shook her head again with grim decision. “The people know. They can’t be fooled. So let ’em git along with it!”
“You don’t think, then, that they ——”
“Them!” said Mrs. Purvis strongly. “Them! Not in a million years, sir! Never! Never! . . . ‘E”— her voice fairly soared to a cry of powerful conviction —”‘E’s the one! ‘E’s always been the one! And when the time comes, sir, ’E—‘E will be King!”
In the complete and unquestioning loyalty of her character, Mrs. Purvis was like a large and gentle dog. Indeed, her whole relation to life was curiously animal-like. She had an intense concern for every member of brute creation, and when she saw dogs or horses in the streets she always seemed to notice first the animal and then the human being that it belonged to. She had come to know and recognise all the people in Ebury Street through the dogs they owned. When George questioned her one clay about a distinguished-looking old gentleman with a keen hawk’s face whom he had passed several times on the street, Mrs. Purvis answered immediately, with an air of satisfaction:
“Ah-h, yes. ‘E’s the one that ‘as the rascal in 27. Ah-h, and ‘e is a rascal, too,” she cried, shaking her head and laughing with affectionate remembrance. “Big, shaggy fellow ‘e is, you know, comin’ along, swingin’ ‘is big shoulders, and looking’ as if butter wouldn’t melt in ‘is mouth. ‘E is a rascal.”
George was a little bewildered by this time and asked her if she meant the gentleman or the dog.
“Oh, the dog,” cried Mrs. Purvis. “The dog! A big Scotch shepherd ‘e is. Belongs to the gentleman you were speakin’ of. Gentleman’s some sort of scholar or writer or professor, I believe. Used to be up at Cambridge. Retired now. Lives in 27.”
Or again, looking out of the window one day into the pea-soup drizzle of the street, George saw an astonishingly beautiful girl pass by upon the other side. He called Mrs. Purvis quickly, pointed out the girl, and excitedly demanded:
“Who is she? Do you know her? Does she live here on the street?”
“I can’t say, sir,” Mrs. Purvis answered, looking puzzled. “It seems I must ‘ave seen ‘er before, but I can’t be sure. But I will just keep my eyes open and I’ll let you know if I find out where she lives.”
A few days later Mrs. Purvis came in from her morning’s shopping tour, beaming with satisfaction and full of news. “Ah-h,” she said, “I ‘ave news for you. I found out about the girl.”
“What girl?” he said, looking up startled from his work.
“The girl you asked about the other day,” said Mrs. Purvis. “The one you pointed out to me.”
“Oh yes,” he said, getting up. “And what about her? Does shelive here in the street?”
“Of course,” said Mrs. Purvis. “I’ve seen ‘er a ‘undred times. I should ‘ave known ‘er in a second the other day, only she didn’t ‘ave ’im with ‘er.”
“Why, the rascal down at 46. That’s who she is.”
“That’s who who is, Mrs. Purvis?”
“Why, the great Dane, of course. You must ‘ave seen ’im. ‘E’s big as a Shetland pony,” she laughed. “‘E’s always with ‘er. The only time I ever saw ‘er without ’im was the other day, and that’s why,” she cried triumphantly, “I didn’t know ‘er. But today, they were out takin’ a walk together and I saw ’em comin’ . . . Then I knew who she was. They’re the ones in 46. And the rascal”— here shelaughed affectionately —“ah-h, what a rascal ‘e is! Oh, a fine fellow, you know. So big and strong ‘e is. I sometimes wonder where they keep ’im, ‘ow they found a ’ouse big enough to put ’im in.”
Hardly a morning passed that she didn’t return from her little tour of the neighbourhood flushed with excitement over some new “rascal”, some “fine fellow”, some dog or horse she had observed and watched. She would go crimson with anger over any act of cruelty or indifference to an animal. She would come in boiling with rage because she had passed a horse that had been tightly bridled:
“ . . . And I gave ’im a piece of my mind, too,” she would cry, referring to the driver. “I told ’im that a man as mistreated a hanimal in that way wasn’t fit to ‘ave one. If there’d been a constable about, I’d ‘ave ‘ad ’im took in custody, that’s what I’d ‘ave done. I told ’im so, too. Shockin’, I calls it. The way some people can b’ave to some poor, ‘elpless beast that ‘as no tongue to tell what it goes through. Let ’em ‘ave a bridle in their mouth a bit! Let ’em go round for a while with their faces shut up in a muzzle! Ah-h,” she would say grimly, as if the idea afforded her a savage pleasure, “that’d teach ’em! They’d know then, all right!”
There was something disturbing and unwholesome about the extravagance of this feeling for animals. George observed Mrs. Purvis closely in her relations with people and found out that she was by no means so agitated at the spectacle of human suffering. Her attitude towards the poor, of whom she was one, was remarkable for its philosophic acceptance. Her feeling seemed to be that the poor are always with us, that they are quite used to their poverty, and that this makes it unnecessary for anybody to bother about it, least of all the miserable victims themselves. It had certainly never entered her head that anything should be done about it. The sufferings of the poor seemed to her as natural and as inevitable as the London fog, and to her way of thinking it was just as much a waste of honest emotion to get worked up about the one as about the other.
Thus, on the same morning that she would come in blazing with indignation over the mistreatment of a dog or horse, George would sometimes hear her speak sharply, curtly, and without a trace of feeling to the dirty, half-starved, and half-naked devil of a boy who always delivered the beer from the liquor shop. This wretched child was like some creature out of Dickens — a living specimen of that poverty which, at its worst, has always seemed to be lower and more degraded in England than anywhere else. The thing that gives it its special horror is that in England people of this type appear to be stogged to their misery, sucked down in a swamp of inherited wretchedness which is never going to be any better, and from which they know they can never escape.
So it was with this God-forsaken boy. He was one of the Little People — that race of dwarfs and gnomes which was suddenly and’ terribly revealed to George that winter in London. George discovered that there arc really two different orders of humanity in England, and they are so far apart that they hardly seem to belong to the same species. They are the Big People and the Little People.
The Big People are fresh-skinned, ruddy, healthy, and alert; they show by their appearance that they have always had enough to eat. At their physical best, they look like great bulls of humanity. On the streets of London one sees these proud and solid figures of men and women, magnificently dressed and cared for, and one observes that their faces wear the completely vacant and imperturbable expressions of highly bred cattle. These are the British Lords of Creation. And among the people who protect and serve them, and who are really a part of their own order, one also sees some magnificent specimens — strapping Guardsmen, for example, six feet five inches tall and as straight as lances, with the same assured look in their faces, which says plainly that though they may not be the Lords of Creation themselves, at any rate they are the agents and instruments of the Lords.
But if one stays in England long enough, all of a sudden one day he is going to discover the Little People. They are a race of gnomes who look as if they have burrowed in tunnels and lived for so many centuries in underground mines that they have all become pale and small and wizened. Something in their faces and in the gnarled formations of their bodies not only shows the buried lives they live, but also indicates that their fathers and mothers and grandparents for generations before them were similarly starved of food and sunlight and were bred like gnomes in the dark and deep-delved earth.
One hardly notices them at first. But then, one day, the Little People swarm up to the surface of the earth, and for the first time one sees them. That is the way the revelation came to George Webber, and it was an astounding discovery. It was like a kind of terrible magic to realise suddenly that he had been living in this English world and seeing only one part of it, thinking it was the whole. It was not that the Little People were few in number. Once he saw them, they seemed to be almost the whole population. They outnumbered the Big People ten to one. And after he saw them, he knew that England could never look the same to him again, and that nothing he might read or hear about the country thereafter would make sense to him if it did not take the Little People into account.
The wretched boy from the liquor shop was one of them. Everything about him proclaimed eloquently that he had been born dwarfed and stunted into a world of hopeless poverty, and that he had never had enough to eat, or enough clothes to warm him, or enough shelter to keep the cold fogs from seeping through into the very marrow of his bones. It was not that he was actually deformed, but merely that his body seemed to be shrivelled and shrunk and squeezed of its juices like that of an old man. He may have been fifteen or sixteen years old, though there were times when he seemed younger. Always, however, his appearance was that of an under-grown man, and one had the horrible feeling that his starved body had long since given up the unequal struggle and would never grow any more.
He wore a greasy, threadbare little jacket, tightly buttoned, from the sleeves of which his raw wrists and large, grimy, work-reddened hands protruded with almost indecent nakedness. His trousers, tight as a couple of sausage skins, were equally greasy and threadbare, and were inches too short for him. His old and broken shoes were several sizes too big, and from the battered look of them they must have helped to round the edges of every cobble-stone in stony-hearted London. This costume was completed by a shapeless old hulk of a cap, so large and baggy that it slopped over on one side of his head and buried the ear.
What his features were like it was almost impossible to know, because he was so dirty. His flesh, what one could see of it through the unwashed grime, had a lifeless, opaque pallor. The whole face was curiously blurred and blunted, as if it had been moulded hastily and roughly out of tallow. The nose was wide and flat, and turned up at the end to produce great, flaring nostrils. The mouth was thick and dull, and looked as if it had been pressed into the face with a blunt instrument. The eyes were dark and dead.
This grotesque little creature even spoke a different language. It was Cockney, of course, but not sharp, decisive Cockney; it was a kind of thick, catarrhal jargon, so blurred in the muttering that it was almost indecipherable. George could hardly understand him at all. Mrs. Purvis could make better sense of it, but even she confessed that there were times when she did not know what he was talking about. George would hear her beginning to rail at him the instant he came staggering into the house beneath the weight of a heavy case of beer:
“‘Ere, now, mind where you’re goin’, won’t you? And try not to make so much noise with those bottles! Why can’t you wipe those muddy boots before you come in the ’ouse? Don’t come clumpin’ up the stairs like an ‘orse! . . . Oh,” she would cry in despair, turning to George, “‘e is the clumsiest chap I ever saw! . . . And why can’t you wash your face once in a while?” she would say, striking again at the urchin with her sharp tongue. “A great, growin’ chap like you ought to be ashamed goin’ about where people can see you with a face like that!”
“Yus,” he muttered sullenly, “goin’ abaht wiv a fyce lahk that. If you ‘ad to go abaht the wye I do, you’d wash your fyce, wouldn’t yer?”
Then, still muttering resentfully to himself, he would clump down the stairs and go away, and from the front window George would watch him as he trudged back up the street towards the wine and liquor shop in which he worked.
This store was small, but since the neighbourhood was fashionable the place had that atmosphere of mellow luxury and quiet elegance — something about it a little worn, but all the better for being a little worn — that one finds in small, expensive shops of this sort in England. It was as if the place were mildly tinctured with fog, touched a little with the weather, and with the indefinable but faintly exciting smell of soft coal smoke. And over everything, permeating the very woods of the counter, shelves, and floor, hung the fragrance of old wines and the purest distillations of fine liquors.
You opened the door, and a little bell tinkled gently. You took a half-step down into the shop, and immediately its atmosphere made you feel at peace. You felt opulent and secure. You felt all the powerful but obscure seductions of luxury (which, if you have money, you can feel in England better than anywhere else). You felt rich and able to do anything. You felt that the world was good, and overflowing with delectable delicacies, and that all of them were yours for the asking.
The proprietor of this luxurious little nest of commerce seemed just exactly the man for such an office. He was middle-aged, of medium height, spare of build, with pale brown eyes and brown moustaches — wispy, rather long, and somewhat lank. He wore a wing collar, a black necktie, and a scarf-pin. He usually appeared in shirt-sleeves, but he dispelled any suggestion of improper informality by wearing arm protectors of black silk. This gave him just the proper touch of unctuous yet restrained servility. He was middle class — not middle class as America knows it, not even middle class as the English usually know it — but a very special kind of middle class, serving middle class, as befitted a purveyor of fine comforts to fine gentlemen. He was there to serve the gentry, to live upon the gentry, to exist by, through, and for the gentry, and always to bend a little at the waist when gentry came.
As you entered the shop, he would come forward behind his counter, say “Good evening, sir,” with just the proper note of modified servility, make some remark about the weather, and then, arching his thin, bony, sandily-freckled hands upon the counter, he would bend forwards slightly — wing collar, black necktie, black silk arm protectors, moustache, pale brown eyes, pale, false smile, and all the rest of him — and with servile attentiveness, not quite fawning, would wait to do your bidding.
“What is good today? Have you a claret, a sound yet modestly-priced vintage you can recommend?”
“A claret, sir?” in silken tones. “We have a good one, sir, and not expensive either. A number of our patrons have tried it. They all pronounce it excellent. You’ll not go wrong, sir, if you try this one.”
“And how about a Scotch whisky?”
“A Haig, sir?” Again the silken tones. “You’ll not go wrong on Haig, sir. But perhaps you’d like to try another brand, something a trifle rare, a little more expensive, perhaps a little more mature. Some of our patrons have tried this one, sir. It costs a shilling more, but if you like the smoky flavour you’ll find it worth the difference.”
Oh, the fond, brisk slave! The fond, neat slave! The fond slave bending at the waist, with bony fingers arched upon his counter! The fond slave with his sparse hair neatly parted in the middle, and the narrow forehead arched with even corrugations of pale wrinkles as the face lifted upwards with its thin, false smile! Oh, this fond, brisk pander to fine gentlemen — and that wretched boy! For suddenly, in the midst of all this show of eager servitude, this painted counterfeit of warmth, the man would turn like a snarling cur upon that miserable child, who stood there sniffling through his catarrhal nose, shuffling his numbed feet for circulation, and chafing his reddened, chapped, work-coarsened hands before the cheerful, crackling fire of coals:
“Here, now, what are you hanging round the shop for? Have you delivered that order to Number 12 yet? Be on your way, then, and don’t keep the gentleman waiting any longer!”
And then immediately the grotesque return to silken courtesy, to the pale, false smile again, to the fawning unctions of his “Yes, sir. A dozen bottles, sir. Within thirty minutes, sir. To Number 42 — oh, quite so, sir. Good night.”
And good night, good night, good night to you, my fond, brisk slave, you backbone of a nation’s power. Good night to you, staunch symbol of a Briton’s rugged independence. Good night to you, and to your wife, your children, and your mongrel tyranny over their lives. Good night to you, my little autocrat of the dinner-table. Good night to you, my lord and master of the Sunday leg of mutton. Good night to you, my gentlemen’s pander in Ebury Street.
And good night to you, as well, my wretched little boy, my little dwarf, my gnome, my grimy citizen from the world of the Little People.
The fog drifts thick and fast to-night into the street. It sifts and settles like a cloak, until one sees the street no longer. And where the shop light shines upon the fog, there burns a misty glow, a blurred and golden bloom of radiance, of comfort, and of warmth. Feet pass the shop, men come ghostwise from the fog’s thick mantle, are for a moment born, are men again, are heard upon the pavement, then, wraithlike, vanish into fog, are ghosts again, are lost, are gone. The proud, the mighty, and the titled of the earth, the lovely and protected, too, go home — home to their strong and sheltered walls behind the golden nimbus of other lights, fog-flowered. Four hundred yards away the tall sentries stamp and turn and march again. All’s glory here. All’s strong as mortared walls. All’s loveliness and joy within this best of worlds.
And you, you wretched child, so rudely and unfitly wrenched into this world of glory, wherever you must go to-night, in whatever doorway you must sleep, upon whatever pallet of foul-smelling straw, within whatever tumbled warren of old brick, there in the smoke, the fog-cold welter, and the swarming web of old, unending London — sleep well as can be, and hug the ghosts of warmth about you as you remember the forbidden world and its imagined glory. So, my little gnome, good night. May God have mercy on us all.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:56