The Alteration in Mr. Kershaw
THE ALTERATION IN MR. KERSHAW.
BY W. PETT RIDGE.
ILLUSTRATED BY ERNEST GOODWIN.
"I'VE knocked about a pretty tidy bit in my time—I'm as much as fifteen next birthday—and I don't write this story from the standpoint of a man who is ignorant of the world. I'm wonderfully observant, and I take notice of little incidents sometimes in a way that surprises even myself. Incidents, I mean, that other people overlook. The junior partner called me the other evening a sharp lad, and 'pon my word he wasn't far wrong. I don't wish to brag about it; I only wish to hint that what I don't notice isn't worth noticing. I've picked out a horse sometimes, and I've——
But I want to tell you about Mr. Kershaw.
Mr. Kershaw is one of the senior clerks in our office; he's the one with rather rough hair, and a collar turned down low all the way round. Most of the clerks are smart and wear high collars, and they wear neckties too that make me gasp. All nice gentlemanly fellows they were when I first came here, bar Mr. Kershaw. Mr. Kershaw was what I call a terror.
"Billing, why aren't these inkstands seen to?"
"Beg pardon, sir, but——"
"I've had to speak to you before about this, Billing."
"I can't do forty thousand things a minute, sir."
"Another word of your confounded insolence, and I shall ask the firm to dispense with your services."
"That ain't insolence, sir, it's simply a fact. If I want to be insolent I know a lot of words——"
"Go away, Billing! You're a perfect nuisance in the place. I shall take an early opportunity of asking the firm to look out for a decent lad."
That's the sort of thing that went on day after day, me and Mr. Kershaw going at it hammer and tongs. I should have got really cross about it only that Mr. Kershaw was just the same with all the others, especially with the juniors. The grumpiest man, I venture to say, that ever came up to the City from Dulwich on a morning since the line's been opened.
One July Mr, Kershaw went away for his three weeks' holiday, and when he came back, the first news was that he was married.
"Now," I said to Linkson, who copies the letters, "now you mark my words. Old K. 'll change his manner."
"For better or for worse?" asked Linkson. "There's something wrong with our copying-ink. This letter hasn't come out a bit clear."
"Whether for better or worse," I answered, "I can't tell you. Sometimes getting spliced has one effect; sometimes the other. But I'll bet you as much as three'apence that we shall notice an alteration."
"I've half a mind to take you," said young Linkson, doubtfully, "only I've got a good deal of money out just now. I've backed Swiftsure for twopence, one, two, three."
"Take it or leave it," I said. "It's an offer, and if you're not sportsman enough to have a bet on, don't."
"She's pretty, they say," remarked Linkson. He gave a twist to the copying press and looked narrowly at Mr. Kershaw hanging up his hat and smoothing his rough hair. "One of the young partners said she was as neat a little figure as ever——"
"Billing," shouted Mr. Kershaw furiously from his office, "come here at once."
To save argument, I went.
"Will you be good enough to explain," demanded Mr. Kershaw, hotly, "to explain, Billing, the condition of this table? Look here! I can write my name on it."
"So could I, sir," I said. "There's nothing clever in that."
"Why on earth isn't the place dusted properly," he shouted. "Why do I come back here——"
" 'Eaven knows!" muttered.
"And find the place neglected in this manner? Get a duster at once."
"But it is not right, Billing," he declared.
"Very good, sir," I said, "it's wrong. I'll fetch the duster in 'alf a tick. But first of all I 'ope it won't seem out of place if I congratulate you, sir, on what I may term a recent matrimonial event."
"Get a duster at once. Billing," he said, sharply, "and don't let us have quite so much talk. It's not business."
I felt very glad that Linkson hadn't booked that bet of threehalfpence, because I most certainly should have lost. So far from Mr. Kershaw's marriage improving his temper, I'm not at all sure that it wasn't worse. I used to say to Linkson I hoped he didn't carry on like that at home, and Linkson—he knows a lot, Linkson, although he's only a little bit of a chap—Linkson used to answer that men who had their tantrums in the City, were generally men who were not allowed to show them in their own homes. But, somehow, I'd an idea that this was not the case with Mr, Kershaw.
About twelve months after his marriage the alteration that I want to tell you about came. I was the first to notice it, and I passed the news round the office. There happened to be a new baby at my place, and I wanted the afternoon off to see some people my mother washes for. What does Mr. Kershaw do but look up from his table quite cheerfully and say,
"By all means. Billing."
"Much obliged to you, sir,
"Going to take your young lady out for the day, Billing?"
I never saw Mr. Kershaw smile before, and upon my word it took my breath away for a moment.
"No, sir," I said, "I've broke it all off with her."
"Sorry to hear that."
"Fact of the matter is, sir, she was a bit too fond of fourpenny ices. Turned up her nose, bless you, at twopenny ones. Would have fourpennies. And when you begin to shell out fourpence after fourpence, and see her getting less imible at each ice, why——"
"It is not with her, then, that you wish to spend the afternoon?"
I explained, and Mr. Kershaw rose from his chair and sat on the corner of the table, just as though he was the most cheerful gentleman in the City.
"Why, that's singular!" he said, good-temperedly.
"I don't know about that, sir," I answered. "There's nine of us already."
"But what I mean to say, it's odd. Because, do you know. Billing, I have a little arrival at home. And that's a boy, too."
"Fine boy, sir, may I ask?"
"As fine a little man," said Mr. Kershaw, enthusiastically, "as ever came into this world. Bright-eyed, healthy, chubby—perfect picture of a boy. I don't suppose, as a matter of fact, that such a perfect youngster is often seen. He's got a way of staring fixedly at one——"
Mr. Kershaw this time absolutely laughed. I went to the door.
"I say, Billing. I should like to give your new brother something. Has he got a mug?"
"He's got a rare funny little mug, sir," I answered. "We all pinch his little nose for him, but unless he alters he won't be what I call dazzlin' 'andsome."
"I mean a silver christening mug," explained Mr. Kershaw. "If not, you must let me present him with one. Good morning, Billing."
It wasn't believed in the office at first, but the clerks soon saw that the change was real. Linkson declared that he overheard Mr. Kershaw one evening, just before he left the office, humming a comic song; Linkson admitted that Mr. Kershaw hummed it all wrong, but still he hummed it. One of our clerks lived at Slough, and Mr. Kershaw called him in one day to ascertain his opinion of Eton as a school for a growing youth. The Slough clerk said that he had heard that Eton wasn't half a bad place, and Mr. Kershaw thanked him, and made a note of it in his diary. On another occasion, when the managing clerk to a solicitor's in Ely Place called at the office, Mr. Kershaw had a long conversation with him on the Bar as a profession for young men, and the chances it offered of advancement. I think that upon this point Mr. Kershaw was not quite decided, because I noticed on his blotting-pad a scribbled line.
"Bar. Query? Enquire re Church. See Canon Weste."
"Is Sandhurst expensive? Query? Tenth Hussars."
One day I posted a letter for him to a Sunday paper, and I got Linkson to persuade his father to buy a copy. In the "Answers to Correspondents" we found:
"Wahsrek.—In answer to your enquiry, I do not recommend a political career for your son, unless he shows a special ability for speaking and a thorough grasp of the great questions of the day. But if he decides to enter St. Stephen's, let him first read all John Stuart Mills's works and my own book called Customs and Habits of the Laplanders."
Somehow the whole office seem to be infected by the alteration in Mr. Kershaw. Everybody became a little more friendly with everybody, and when Master Kershaw was six months old and a proposal was made to send a birthday present to the little baby, the suggestion was taken up like one o'clock. Mr. Pascoe took the big basket of hot-house flowers into Mr. Kershaw's room, and presented it to Mr. Kershaw, and Mr. Kershaw came out into the office and shook hands with all of us, right down to me.
"Gentlemen," said he, as he stood at the door of his office, "I wish I could tell you how deeply I am touched by your kind thought of my—of my son. I shall take this delightful basket of flowers home with me this evening, and I shall tell my boy that although he is only six months old to-day, yet he has—he has friends who wish him well, and look forward with interest, and I hope I may say with affection, to the—to the time when——"
And here Mr. Kershaw suddenly broke down, went hurriedly into his office, and closed the door. Later he went off radiant, with the basket of expensive flowers, carried with great care.
The next morning Mr. Kershaw was an hour late coming to the office. This had never happened before within my knowledge, and there were a good many jokes going round the office about it. I remember that I made one or two of the best of them. When he did arrive he walked straight to his office and turned the key.
"Headache after the jollification last night," said the office.
My mother called round that morning with the baby. I don't believe in women-folk coming into the City at all, but mother was so excited about father having got a good berth that she said (you know what women are) that she felt as though she must come straight down and tell me the news. I knocked at the door of Mr. Kershaw's office, and he unlocked it.
"Beg pardon, sir, for troubling you, but my mother and the baby—anything the matter, sir?"
"Go on, Billing," he said, and turned his head away.
"They've just called, and I thought perhaps you wouldn't mind if I slipped out for a few minutes to show mother and baby the Tower Bridge."
"Do you mind—do you mind bringing your baby in here for a moment?" He coughed as though there was something in his throat, "I should rather like to see him."
"Only too proud, sir."
I brought the baby in myself, because I was afraid mother would drop her aitches or make me look silly in some way. I sat the little beggar on the table, and I'm blest if he didn't put out both his chubby arms to Mr. Kershaw. Fact!
"I expect he ain't the baby yours is, sir," I remarked respectfully. Mr. Kershaw was patting the tiny chin and whispering baby-talk to the little kid.
"No, Billing," he said. "No." He turned away again so that I couldn't see his face, and kissed our baby. "My boy—er—died last night."
What I want to add is, that Mr. Kersaw has never been the one he was in the old days. He's as kind mannered a senior clerk as you'll find between Temple Bar and Aldgate. And I've noticed that in the street sometimes, when a baby goes by and he catches sight of it, Mr. Kershaw will stop—it don't matter who he's with—and he will watch it until it goes right out of sight.