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 brain.
"Law!" said Mrs. Larkins, "come in! You're quite a stranger, Elfrid!"
"Been seeing to business," said the unveracious Polly.
"None of 'em ain't at 'ome, but Miriam's just out to do a bit of 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 got to take us as you find us. Wot you been doing to your face?"
"Bit of a scrase with the bicycle," said Mr. Polly.
"Trying to pass a carriage on the on side, and he drew up and ran me against a wall."
Mrs. Larkins scrutinised it. "You ought to '_ave_ someone look after your scrases," she said. "That's all red and rough. It ought to be cold-creamed. Bring your bicycle into the passage and come in."
She "straightened up a bit," that is to say she increased the 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 interpolations as: "Law, if I ain't forgot the butter!" All the while 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.
"You're a long time finding that shop of yours," said Mrs. Larkins.
"Don't do to be precipitous," said Mr. Polly.
"No," said Mrs. Larkins, "once you got it you got it. Like choosing a '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 it only shows they don't know when they're well off. Here's Miriam!"
Miriam entered with several parcels in a net, and a peevish expression. "Mother," she said, "you might '_ave_ prevented my going out with the net with the broken handle. I've been cutting my fingers with the string all the way 'ome." Then she discovered Mr. Polly and her face brightened.
"Ello, Elfrid!" she said. "Where you been all this time?"
"Looking round," said Mr. Polly.
"Found a shop?"
"One or two likely ones. But it takes time."
"You've got the wrong cups, Mother."
She went into the kitchen, disposed of her purchases, and returned with the right cups. "What you done to your face, Elfrid?" she asked, and came and scrutinised his scratches. "All rough it is."
He repeated his story of the accident, and she was sympathetic in a pleasant homely way.
"You are quiet today," she said as they sat down to tea.
"Meditatious," said Mr. Polly.
Quite by accident he touched her hand on the table, and she answered his touch.
"Why not?" thought Mr. Polly, and looking up, caught Mrs. Larkins' eye and flushed guiltily. But Mrs. Larkins, with unusual restraint, said nothing. She merely made a grimace, enigmatical, but in its essence friendly.
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 redeemed by a certain earnestness. "I'm never within sixpence of what I reckon to be," she said. "It's a bit too 'ot." Then Mr. Polly, 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.
"Found your tongue again," said Mrs. Larkins. He had. He began to 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.
"When I get this shop of mine I shall have a cat. Must make a home for a cat, you know."
"What, to catch the mice?" said Mrs. Larkins.
"No--sleep in the window. A venerable _signor_ of a cat. Tabby. Cat's 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 singing and--Mrs. Polly...."
"Ello!" said Mrs. Larkins.
"Mrs. Polly frying an extra bit of bacon. Bacon singing, cat singing, canary singing. Kettle singing. Mrs. Polly--"
"But who's Mrs. Polly going to be?" said Mrs. Larkins.
"Figment of the imagination, ma'am," said Mr. Polly. "Put in to fill 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 for a garden of course," he said, going off at a tangent, "but I don't 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. Humorous wind vane. Creeper up the back of the house."
"Virginia creeper?" asked Miriam.
"Canary creeper," said Mr. Polly.
"You _will_ '_ave_ it nice," said Miriam, desirously.
"Rather," said Mr. Polly. "Ting-a-ling-a-ling. _Shop!_"
He straightened himself up and then they all laughed.
"Smart little shop," he said. "Counter. Desk. All complete. Umbrella stand. Carpet on the floor. Cat asleep on the counter. Ties and hose on a rail over the counter. All right."
"I wonder you don't set about it right off," said Miriam.
"Mean to get it exactly right, m'am," said Mr. Polly.
"Have to have a tomcat," said Mr. Polly, and paused for an expectant moment. "Wouldn't do to open shop one morning, you know, and find the window full of kittens. Can't sell kittens...."
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.
"I like cats," said Minnie after a thoughtful pause. "I'm always saying to mother, 'I wish we 'ad a cat.' But we couldn't '_ave_ a cat 'ere--not with no yard."
"Never had a cat myself," said Mr. Polly. "No!"
"I'm fond of them," said Minnie.
"I like the look of them," said Mr. Polly. "Can't exactly call myself fond."
"I expect I shall get one some day. When about you get your shop."
"I shall have my shop all right before long," said Mr. Polly. "Trust me. Canary bird and all."
She shook her head. "I shall get a cat first," she said. "You never mean anything you say."
"Might get 'em together," said Mr. Polly, with his sense of a neat thing outrunning his discretion.
"Why! 'ow d'you mean?" said Minnie, suddenly alert.
"Shop and cat thrown in," said Mr. Polly in spite of himself, and his head swam and he broke out into a cold sweat as he said it.
He found her eyes fixed on him with an eager expression. "Mean to say--" she began as if for verification. He sprang to his feet, and turned to the window. "Little dog!" he said, and moved doorward hastily. "Eating my bicycle tire, I believe," he explained. And so escaped.
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 door.
He turned to her. "Thought my bicycle was on fire," he said. "Outside. Funny fancy! All right, reely. Little dog outside.... Miriam ready?"
"To go and meet Annie."
Mrs. Larkins stared at him. "You're stopping for a bit of supper?"
"If I may," said Mr. Polly.
"You're a rum un," said Mrs. Larkins, and called: "Miriam!"
Minnie appeared at the door of the room looking infinitely perplexed. "There ain't a little dog anywhere, Elfrid," she said.
Mr. Polly passed his hand over his brow. "I had a most curious sensation. Felt exactly as though something was up somewhere. That's why I said Little Dog. All right now."
He bent down and pinched his bicycle tire.
"You was saying something about a cat, Elfrid," said Minnie.
"Give you one," he answered without looking up. "The very day my shop is opened."
He straightened himself up and smiled reassuringly. "Trust me," he said.
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....
"You really think you'll open a shop?" asked Miriam.
"I hate cribs," said Mr. Polly, adopting a moderate tone. "In a shop there's this drawback and that, but one is one's own master."
"That wasn't all talk?"
"Not a bit of it."
"After all," he went on, "a little shop needn't be so bad."
"It's a 'ome," said Miriam.
"It's a home."
"There's no need to keep accounts and that sort of thing if there's no assistant. I daresay I could run a shop all right if I wasn't interfered with."
"I should like to see you in your shop," said Miriam. "I expect you'd keep everything tremendously neat."
The conversation flagged.
"Let's sit down on one of those seats over there," said Miriam. "Where we can see those blue flowers."
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.
"I wonder what they call those flowers," she said. "I always like them. They're handsome."
"Delphicums and larkspurs," said Mr. Polly. "They used to be in the park at Port Burdock.
"Floriferous corner," he added approvingly.
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.
Her thoughts found speech. "One did ought to be happy in a shop," she 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.
"A shop's such a respectable thing to be," said Miriam thoughtfully.
"_I_ could be happy in a shop," he said.
His sense of effect made him pause.
"If I had the right company," he added.
She became very still.
Mr. Polly swerved a little from the conversational ice-run upon which he had embarked.
"I'm not such a blooming Geezer," he said, "as not to be able to sell goods a bit. One has to be nosy over one's buying of course. But I shall do all right."
He stopped, and felt falling, falling through the aching silence that followed.
"If you get the right company," said Miriam.
"I shall get that all right."
"You don't mean you've got someone--"
He found himself plunging.
"I've got someone in my eye, this minute," he said.
"Elfrid!" she said, turning on him. "You don't mean--"
Well, _did_ he mean? "I do!" he said.
"Not reely!" She clenched her hands to keep still.
He took the conclusive step.
"Well, you and me, Miriam, in a little shop--with a cat and a canary--" He tried too late to get back to a hypothetical note. "Just suppose it!"
"You mean," said Miriam, "you're in love with me, Elfrid?"
What possible answer can a man give to such a question but "Yes!"
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.
"I didn't dream," said Miriam, "you cared--. Sometimes I thought it was Annie, sometimes Minnie--"
"Always liked you better than them," said Mr. Polly.
"I loved you, Elfrid," said Miriam, "since ever we met at your poor father's funeral. Leastways I _would_ have done, if I had thought. You didn't seem to mean anything you said.
"I _can't_ believe it!" she added.
"Nor I," said Mr. Polly.
"You mean to marry me and start that little shop--"
"Soon as ever I find it," said Mr. Polly.
"I had no more idea when I came out with you--"
"It's like a dream."
They said no more for a little while.
"I got to pinch myself to think it's real," said Miriam. "What they'll do without me at 'ome I can't imagine. When I tell them--"
For the life of him Mr. Polly could not tell whether he was fullest of tender anticipations or regretful panic.
"Mother's no good at managing--not a bit. Annie don't care for 'ouse work and Minnie's got no 'ed for it. What they'll do without me I can't imagine."
"They'll have to do without you," said Mr. Polly, sticking to his guns.
A clock in the town began striking.
"Lor'!" said Miriam, "we shall miss Annie--sitting 'ere and love-making!"
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.
"Don't tell anyone yet a bit," he said.
"Only mother," said Miriam firmly.
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.
"Going down a vortex!" he whispered.
By a characteristic feat of subtraction he decided that he must have spent sixty-two pounds.
"Funererial baked meats," he said, recalling possible items.
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.
"It's about time, O' Man, I saw about doing something," he said. "Riding about and looking at shops, all very debonnairious, O' Man, but it's time I took one for keeps."
"What did I tell you?" said Johnson.
"How do you think that corner shop of yours will figure out?" Mr. Polly asked.
"You're really meaning it?"
"If it's a practable proposition, O' Man. Assuming it's practable. What's your idea of the figures?"
Johnson went to the chiffonier, got out a letter and tore off the back sheet. "Let's figure it out," he said with solemn satisfaction. "Let's see the lowest you could do it on."
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.
"What running expenses have we got to provide for?" said Johnson, wetting his pencil. "Let's have them first. Rent?..."
At the end of an hour of hideous speculations, Johnson decided: "It's close. But you'll have a chance."
"M'm," said Mr. Polly. "What more does a brave man want?"
"One thing you can do quite easily. I've asked about it."
"What's that, O' Man?" said Mr. Polly.
"Take the shop without the house above it."
"I suppose I might put my head in to mind it," said Mr. Polly, "and get a job with my body."
"Not exactly that. But I thought you'd save a lot if you stayed on here--being all alone as you are."
"Never thought of that, O' Man," said Mr. Polly, and reflected silently upon the needlessness of Miriam.
"We were talking of eighty pounds for stock," said Johnson. "Of course seventy-five is five pounds less, isn't it? Not much else we can cut."
"No," said Mr. Polly.
"It's very interesting, all this," said Johnson, folding up the half sheet of paper and unfolding it. "I wish sometimes I had a business of my own instead of a fixed salary. You'll have to keep books of course."
"One wants to know where one is."
"I should do it all by double entry," said Johnson. "A little troublesome at first, but far the best in the end."
"Lemme see that paper," said Mr. Polly, and took it with the feeling of a man who takes a nauseating medicine, and scrutinised his cousin's neat figures with listless eyes.
"Well," said Johnson, rising and stretching. "Bed! Better sleep on it, O' Man."
"Right O," said Mr. Polly without moving, but indeed he could as well 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 that undesired establishment at the corner near the station. "Oh Lord!" he cried, "I'd rather go back to cribs. I _should_ keep my money anyhow." Fate never winced.
"Run away to sea," whispered Mr. Polly, but he knew he wasn't man enough.
"Cut my blooming throat."
Some braver strain urged him to think of Miriam, and for a little while he lay still....
"Well, O' Man?" said Johnson, when Mr. Polly came down to breakfast, and Mrs. Johnson looked up brightly. Mr. Polly had never felt breakfast so unattractive before.
"Just a day or so more, O' Man--to turn it over in my mind," he said.
"You'll get the place snapped up," said Johnson.
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 manifestly curious, that he was "off for a day or two to clear his head," and fled forthright into the road, and mounting turned his 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:
"I've took a little contraption at Fishbourne, O' Man, that I fancy suits me better."
He paused, and then added in a manner, if possible, even more offhand:
"Oh! and I'm going to have a bit of a nuptial over at Stamton with one of the Larkins cousins."
"Nuptial!" said Johnson.
"Wedding bells, O' Man. Benedictine collapse."
On the whole Johnson showed great self-control. "It's your own affair, O' Man," he said, when things had been more clearly explained, "and I hope you won't feel sorry when it's too late."
But Mrs. Johnson was first of all angrily silent, and then reproachful. "I don't see what we've done to be made fools of like this," she said. "After all the trouble we've 'ad to make you 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 addin' and thinkin' for you, instead of seeing to his own affairs--"
She paused for breath.
"Unfortunate amoor," said Mr. Polly, apologetically and indistinctly. "Didn't expect it myself."
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 r�le, 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 stood at the altar in "a modest going-away dress" had materially 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 left the clutch of her plump red hand. "Goo' girls, all of them," she kept on saying in a tremulous voice; "such-goo-goo-goo-girls!" She 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 criticisms of ecclesiastical architecture with Johnson. "Early Norman arches, eh?" he said, "or Perpendicular."
"Can't say," said Johnson.
"Telessated pavements, all right."
"It's well laid anyhow."
"Can't say I admire the altar. Scrappy rather with those flowers."
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 Mrs. Larkins' "Don't take her from me yet!" he made Miriam go first 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 azure pupil glowed with disciplined resolution. It said: "I've come to give this girl away, and give her away I will. I'm here now and things have to go on all right. So don't think of it any more"--and Mr. Polly didn't. A faint phantom of a certain "lill' dog" that had hovered just 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.
"Hullo!" he said, and feeling that was clumsy and would meet the eye's disapproval: "Grey dress--suits you no end."
Miriam's eyes shone under her hat-brim.
"Not reely!" she whispered.
"You're all right," he said with the feeling of observation and criticism stiffening his lips. He cleared his throat.
The verger's hand pushed at him from behind. Someone was driving Miriam towards the altar rail and the clergyman. "We're in for it," said Mr. Polly to her sympathetically. "Where? Here? Right O." He was 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!
"Don't let your attention wander," said the eye.
"Got the ring?" whispered Johnson.
"Pawned it yesterday," answered Mr. Polly and then had a dreadful 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.
"_D'b'loved, we gath'd 'gether sight o' Gard 'n face this con'gation join 'gather Man, Worn' Holy Mat'my which is on'bl state stooted by Gard in times man's innocency_...."
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.
"Wiltou lover, cumfer, oner, keeper sickness and health..."
"Say 'I will.'"
Mr. Polly moistened his lips. "I will," he said hoarsely.
Miriam, nearly inaudible, answered some similar demand.
Then the clergyman said: "Who gifs Worn married to this man?"
"Well, _I'm_ doing that," said Mr. Voules in a refreshingly full voice and looking round the church. "You see, me and Martha Larkins being cousins--"
He was silenced by the clergyman's rapid grip directing the exchange of hands.
"Pete arf me," said the clergyman to Mr. Polly. "Take thee Mirum wed wife--"
"Take thee Mirum wed' wife," said Mr. Polly.
"Have hold this day ford."
"Have hold this day ford."
"Bet worsh, richpoo'...."
Then came Miriam's turn.
"Lego hands," said the clergyman; "got the ring? No! On the book. So! Here! Pete arf me, 'withis ring Ivy wed.'"
"Withis ring Ivy wed--"
So it went on, blurred and hurried, like the momentary vision of an utterly beautiful thing seen through the smoke of a passing train....
"Now, my boy," said Mr. Voules at last, gripping Mr. Polly's elbow tightly, "you've got to sign the registry, and there you are! Done!"
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.
"Everything," he said to the clergyman, "excellent." He also shook hands with Mrs. Larkins, who clung to him for a space, and kissed Miriam on the cheek. "First kiss for me," he said, "anyhow."
He led Mr. Polly to the register by the arm, and then got chairs for Mrs. Larkins and his wife. He then turned on Miriam. "Now, young people," he said. "One! or _I_ shall again."
"That's right!" said Mr. Voules. "Same again, Miss."
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. Voules and smacked his lips and remarked: "Home again safe and sound!" 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 doubt with ideas of sanctuary in his mind. "Like a bit of a kiss round sometimes," said Mr. Voules, and made a kind of hissing noise with his teeth, and suddenly smacked his hands together with great _�clat_ several times. Meanwhile the clergyman scratched his cheek with one hand and fiddled the pen with the other and the verger coughed protestingly.
"The dog cart's just outside," said Mr. Voules. "No walking home to-day for the bride, Mam."
"Not going to drive us?" cried Annie.
"The happy pair, Miss. _Your_ turn soon."
"Get out!" said Annie. "I shan't marry--ever."
"You won't be able to help it. You'll have to do it--just to disperse the crowd." Mr. Voules laid his hand on Mr. Polly's shoulder. "The bridegroom gives his arm to the bride. Hands across and down the middle. Prump. Prump, Perump-pump-pump-pump."
Mr. Polly found himself and the bride leading the way towards the western door.
Mrs. Larkins passed close to Uncle Pentstemon, sobbing too earnestly to be aware of him. "Such a goo-goo-goo-girl!" she sobbed.
"Didn't think _I'd_ come, did you?" said Uncle Pentstemon, but she swept past him, too busy with the expression of her feelings to observe him.
"She didn't think I'd come, I lay," said Uncle Pentstemon, a little foiled, but effecting an auditory lodgment upon Johnson.
"I don't know," said Johnson uncomfortably.
"I suppose you were asked. How are you getting on?"
"I was _arst_," said Uncle Pentstemon, and brooded for a moment.
"I goes about seeing wonders," he added, and then in a sort of enhanced undertone: "One of 'er girls gettin' married. That's what I mean by wonders. Lord's goodness! Wow!"
"Nothing the matter?" asked Johnson.
"Got it in the back for a moment. Going to be a change of weather I suppose," said Uncle Pentstemon. "I brought 'er a nice present, too, 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 thinks I, drat it! I may as well give it 'er as not...."
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.
"Not yet, you young fool!" he heard Mr. Voules saying behind him, and then a second handful spoke against his hat.
"Not yet," said Mr. Voules with increasing emphasis, and Mr. Polly 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 not untenable with hampers. "Up we go," said Mr. Voules, "old birds in front and young ones behind." An ominous group of ill-restrained rice-throwers followed them up as they mounted.
"Get your handkerchief for your face," said Mr. Polly to his bride, and took the place next the pavement with considerable heroism, held on, gripped his hat, shut his eyes and prepared for the worst. "Off!" said Mr. Voules, and a concentrated fire came stinging Mr. Polly's face.
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.
"Steady, you idiot. Stead-y!" cried Mr. Voules, and then over his shoulder: "I brought that rice! I like old customs! Whoa! Stead-y."
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.
"We'll get the stuff into the house before the old gal comes along," said Mr. Voules, "if you'll hold the hoss."
"How about the key?" asked Mr. Polly.
"I got the key, coming."
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. Finally he called: "Hi!"
"Hullo!" said Mr. Polly.
"You needn't 'old that '_orse_," said the old gentleman.
"Spirited beast," said Mr. Polly. "And,"--with some faint analogy to ginger beer in his mind--"he's up today."
"'E won't turn 'isself round," said the old gentleman, "anyow. And there ain't no way through for 'im to go."
"_Verbum_ sap," said Mr. Polly, and abandoned the horse and turned, to 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.
"They're coming," he said to Miriam, and put an arm about her and gave 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.
"Here! you'll '_ave_ plenty of time for that presently," he said, "get these hampers away before the old girl comes. I got a cold collation here to make her sit up. My eye!"
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 approval.
"Makes it look a bit thicker, eh?" said Mr. Voules, and blew out both his cheeks and smacked his hands together violently several times. "Surprise the old girl no end."
He stood back and smiled and bowed with arms extended as the others came clustering at the door.
"Why, _Un_-_cl�_ Voules!" cried Annie, with a rising note.
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 sight of the pie and the ham and the convivial array of bottles. "Sit down everyone," cried Mr. Voules, "leaning against anything counts as sitting, and makes it easier to shake down the grub!"
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 bride. "Here!" he said and handed it to her. "Weddin' present," he explained, and added with a confidential chuckle, "_I_ never thought I'd '_ave_ to give you one--ever."
"Who says steak and kidney pie?" bawled Mr. Voules. "Who says steak 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 once. Who says steak and kidney pie?..."
"Vocificeratious," whispered Mr. Polly. "Convivial vocificerations."
"Bit of 'am with it," shouted Mr. Voules, poising a slice of ham on his knife. "Anyone '_ave_ a bit of 'am with it? Won't that little man of yours, Mrs. Punt--won't 'e '_ave_ a bit of 'am?..."
"And now ladies and gentlemen," said Mr. Voules, still standing and dominating the crammed roomful, "now you got your plates filled and something I can warrant you good in your glasses, wot about drinking the 'ealth of the bride?"
"Eat a bit fust," said Uncle Pentstemon, speaking with his mouth full, amidst murmurs of applause. "Eat a bit fust."
So they did, and the plates clattered and the glasses chinked.
Mr. Polly stood shoulder to shoulder with Johnson for a moment.
"In for it," said Mr. Polly cheeringly. "Cheer up, O' Man, and peck a bit. No reason why _you_ shouldn't eat, you know."
The Punt boy stood on Mr. Polly's boots for a minute, struggling violently against the compunction of Mrs. Punt's grip.
"Pie," said the Punt boy, "Pie!"
"You sit 'ere and '_ave_ 'am, my lord!" said Mrs. Punt, prevailing. "Pie you can't '_ave_ and you won't."
"Lor bless my heart, Mrs. Punt!" protested Mr. Voules, "let the boy '_ave_ a bit if he wants it--wedding and all!"
"You 'aven't 'ad 'im sick on your 'ands, Uncle Voules," said Mrs. Punt. "Else you wouldn't want to humour his fancies as you do...."
"I can't help feeling it's a mistake, O' Man," said Johnson, in a confidential undertone. "I can't help feeling you've been Rash. Let's hope for the best."
"Always glad of good wishes, O' Man," said Mr. Polly. "You'd better have a drink of something. Anyhow, sit down to it."
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 upon the table with a black bottle. "Ladies and gentlemen," said Mr. Voules, raising his glass solemnly in the empty desert of sound he had made, and paused for a second or so. "Ladies and gentlemen,--The Bride." He searched his mind for some suitable wreath of speech, and brightened at last with discovery. "Here's Luck to her!" he said at last.
"Here's Luck!" said Johnson hopelessly but resolutely, and raised his glass. Everybody murmured: "Here's luck."
"Luck!" said Mr. Polly, unseen in his corner, lifting a forkful of ham.
"That's all right," said Mr. Voules with a sigh of relief at having brought off a difficult operation. "And now, who's for a bit more pie?"
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 renewed hammering. "Ladies and gents," he said, "fill up for the second toast:--the happy Bridegroom!" He stood for half a minute searching his mind for the apt phrase that came at last in a rush. "Here's (hic) luck to _him_," said Mr. Voules.
"Luck to him!" said everyone, and Mr. Polly, standing up behind Mrs. Voules, bowed amiably, amidst enthusiasm.
"He may say what he likes," said Mrs. Larkins, "he's _got_ luck. That 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, giving no more than her due...."
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 third Toast, ladies and gentlemen," he said; "fill up, please. The Mother of the bride. I--er.... Uoo.... Ere!... Ladies and gem, 'Ere's Luck to 'er!..."
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 chair to him and whispered cheeringly: "Soon be together now." Next to 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 say, "Well--so long," to anyone who might be listening, and disappear. 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.
"They do say," said Uncle Pentstemon, "one funeral makes many. This time it's a wedding. But it's all very much of a muchness," said Uncle Pentstemon....
"'Am _do_ get in my teeth nowadays," said Uncle Pentstemon, "I can't understand it. 'Tisn't like there was nubbicks or strings or such in 'am. It's a plain food.
"That's better," he said at last.
"You _got_ to get married," said Uncle Pentstemon. "Some has. Some 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....
"You done well not to '_ave_ the big gal. I will say that for ye. 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. Dratted lumpin baggage!..."
For a while he mused malevolently upon Annie, and routed out a reluctant crumb from some coy sitting-out place in his tooth.
"Wimmin's a toss up," said Uncle Pentstemon. "Prize packets they are, 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.
"I seen the nicest girls go wrong," said Uncle Pentstemon, and added with unusual thoughtfulness, "Not that I mean _you_ got one of that sort."
He sent another crumb on to its long home with a sucking, encouraging noise.
"The _wust_ sort's the grizzler," Uncle Pentstemon resumed. "If ever I'd 'ad a grizzler I'd up and 'it 'er on the 'ed with sumpthin' pretty quick. I don't think I could abide a grizzler," said Uncle Pentstemon. "I'd liefer '_ave_ a lump-about like that other gal. I would indeed. I lay I'd make 'er stop laughing after a bit for all 'er airs. And mind where her clumsy great feet went....
"A man's got to tackle 'em, whatever they be," said Uncle Pentstemon, summing up the shrewd observation of an old-world life time. "Good or bad," said Uncle Pentstemon raising his voice fearlessly, "a man's got to tackle 'em."
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.
"Off!" The train moved out of the station.
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.
"Got a compartment to ourselves anyhow," said Mrs. Polly after a pause.
Silence for a moment.
"The rice 'e must '_ave_ bought. Pounds and pounds!"
Mr. Polly felt round his collar at the thought.
"Ain't you going to kiss me, Elfrid, now we're alone together?"
He roused himself to sit forward hands on knees, cocked his hat over one eye, and assumed an expression of avidity becoming to the occasion.
"Never!" he said. "Ever!" and feigned to be selecting a place to kiss with great discrimination.
"Come here," he said, and drew her to him.
"Be careful of my 'at," said Mrs. Polly, yielding awkwardly.