The Times' Red Cross Story Book/The Probation of Jimmy Baker
The Probation of Jimmy Baker
By Albert Kinross
Army Service Corps
The bank was in the High Street, a broad, leafy place of stone houses and regularly planted trees. The most of Seacombe, however, is neither broad nor leafy nor regular. Old Town—so they call it—a picturesque welter of thatched and cream-washed cottages, climbs the hills and clusters round the harbour; New Town, with its bank and High Street and electric light and things, was added when the railway came. Into this bank, one bright September morning, stepped Miss Mamie Stuart Berridge, of Lansing, in the State of Michigan. From Lansing, in the State of Michigan, to Seacombe, in the county of Somerset, is a far and distant cry, and the transition requires money for its satisfactory accomplishment. Miss Mamie had money, a diminishing wad that folded up in a neat black leather case. She stepped into the bank, unfolded her wad, and handed an American Express Company's cheque across the counter. The young man who did duty there reminded her that she must sign it. "That's the second time I've forgotten," said Mamie, and wrote her name in the appointed space.
"All gold, or would you like a note?" inquired the young man.
Miss Mamie thought that she would like a note; and then she altered her mind and exchanged the note for gold; and then she altered her mind once more and took the note. The young man smiled amiably and blushed a little; for the transaction was fast becoming confidential, and he was told that the note would "do for Mrs. Bilson." He knew Mrs. Bilson as a party who let lodgings.
"Are you comfortable there?" he ventured.
"As comfortable as one can be in this old England of yours."
A laugh, a snapping of her handbag, a swish of skirt, and she was gone. Other and duller customers engaged the young man till four o'clock. Once or twice that day he thought of Mamie, and wondered whether she was ever coming back again.
The next afternoon he caught a glimpse of her, seated high on a char-à-banc, and just returned from an excursion. "She's been to Porlock Weir," he said, and then went off to play tennis, a game that invariably occupied his leisure hours of daylight. After the bank had closed there was little else to do in Seacombe. The next day he met her face to face, and he blushed a deep pink, for she had recognised him. She gave him a bright little bow; he stopped; she inquired whether he had anything to do; and "Nothing at all," was his answer. The tennis club could go hang was an inward ejaculation that escaped Miss Mamie Stuart Berridge.
They bought things for her supper and her breakfast, and she also wanted a new pair of gloves, and asked the young man where she could get them. He did his best for her and carried the parcels, and explained that a florin was not the same as half a crown. She had given up Mrs. Bilson, who had overcharged her, and was now doing her own catering. "Just like you English," she added gaily, and led the way to a shop where they sold Devonshire cream. This latter delicacy, it appeared, was "just lovely," and not to be had at all in the United States.
"Won't you come in?" she asked, when at last they reached her door.
The young man hesitated.
"Isn't it proper?" inquired Miss Mamie.
The young man smiled.
"Well, I guess we'll just be improper."
The young man followed her into a sitting-room that overlooked the street.
Indoors, Mamie tucked up her sleeves and made a salad, and the young man sat on the sofa and watched her. "What's your name?" she asked.
"Always been at that old bank?"
"Since I left school."
"Not very much."
"Why do you stay there?"
"I don't know."
"Got put there, and here in England people stay where they're put?"
"I suppose so."
"I may be a manager some day—get a branch office like this."
"When you're pie-faced and bald?"
Her frankness was alarming, but Jimmy Baker rather liked it. "When I'm forty or so," he admitted.
"How old are you now?" She asked the question without looking up from her salad.
"I'm twenty-two," said she. "Uncle Walter died and left me a thousand, and so I thought I'd come to England and have a good time. I'm going to be a school teacher when it's over. I've been to college. When you've been to college you can do without a chaperon, and I'd nobody to go with me and nobody to ask. Father's married again, and I don't remember mother. I was a baby when she died. You got any folks?"
Baker had everything and everybody. His father farmed near Bideford; his mother and sisters looked after the dairy; his brothers were at school or in positions similar to his own.
"What do they give you at the bank?" she asked.
He named the figure of his meagre salary.
"My! you're not going on working for that!"
"I have to," he answered.
"Well, it's no business of mine;" and now she rang for the landlady and introduced Mr. Baker as a guest who was staying to supper.
Miss Mamie Stuart Berridge had explored Exmoor and Dunster and Porlock, and the other wonderful and romantic places that are within walking or driving distance of the little town. She had, perhaps, just scratched the surface; yet, for all that, it was ecstatic to take tea in the shadow of age-old castles, or wander through villages that looked as though they had come straight out of a picture-book. Till she met Jimmy Baker, however, one thing had been lacking in this romance—the final touch. She saw it at last, and clearly too; it had not been so very prominent before. Jimmy's ingenuous face brought it home to her. She wanted a companion. Doing England and having "a good time" was all very well; but without a companion it was only half the good time it might have been. And there was Jimmy, free to go a-roaming every evening after five, or even earlier. So she annexed him, and such of Seacombe as knew Jimmy whispered that this annexation was not entirely one-sided.
He was twenty-three and she was twenty-two, and it was the month of the harvest moon and all the year's stored tenderness. They climbed the winding paths that led to the church; close together on a bench they rested and found the sea; through narrow lanes they strolled, and thence upward to purple heather and the misty hills. And there Mamie discovered that she had not been mistaken. The final touch was a hand laid on hers, and an inward wound like that which comes when music is too sweet, too magical. The night she gave her lips to him obliterated America, and especially Lansing, in the State of Michigan. She wanted to stay here for ever, in his arms, and the moon poised above Dunkery Beacon. This place was no longer England; it had become the Land of Heart's Desire.
"Let me look and look," she cried; "I shall never see anything like this again!" And with his arm on her neck, and cheek against cheek, they sat there, awed by a world bathed in moonlight, themselves transfigured, smitten and silenced by the great mystery of first-awakened love. It seemed to Mamie that she had been born anew, been here admitted into some strange, all-satisfying faith.
Baker's holiday, an annual fortnight wherein he might refresh himself as best he could, was due next Monday. He had been saving up for it. During fifty weeks of the year he was a bank clerk, the other two he was permitted to be a man. By a predestinate coincidence—or so they deemed it—Mamie's trip expired on the same date. A fortnight from the Monday she must go to Liverpool, and thence return to Lansing, in the State of Michigan. She had her berth on the steamboat; all was paid for and arranged. Thus two weeks and some odd days remained to them before she sailed. ... It was on the Saturday that they made up their minds to get married.
Which of the two first jumped to that decision is hard to say, and does not matter specially. That they jumped to it is enough. The Saturday found them at Grabbist, above Dunster, and the inspiration came during a pause. It seemed as simple as the line of Dunkery Beacon, that great hill whose monstrous bulk is so precise. Next day, in the smoke-room of the Pier Hotel, they consulted reference books. They could go to London to- morrow, and be married on the Tuesday, it said, provided they paid the fees. They clubbed their money together and went.
From then onward unseen hands seemed to guide them; first to their lodgings, thence to the office of the Vicar-General, where they bought a licence—Mamie had stayed in London, and had a residential qualification, it appeared—and next day to the church where they were married. They came out into the street again, and no one knew their secret. They shared the memory of a sacrament taken in the wilderness, where the droning curate and paid witnesses were of small account beside the flame that had fused them into man and wife. ... The golden sunlight of that exquisite hour when, hand-in-hand, they faced London was as though made for them; the old heart of the giant city could still rejoice, it seemed, and was ready to crown true lovers, and fold them in mantles of shimmering tissue and cloth of gold. They wandered through leafy squares, and a man stopped them and asked them the way to Bell Yard. Neither of them knew. Had he inquired the road to Paradise they could have told. ... They grew hungry at last. Their wedding breakfast was eaten in a restaurant off Hatton Garden. The regular customers of the place, Jews for the most part, and dealers in the staple article of that quarter, smiled the racial smile of genial incredulity as these two entered and found room. But neither Jim nor Mamie had a doubt; for in their eyes that met across the narrow table shone a light more precious and more enduring than that emitted by all the diamonds, rubies, and emeralds of Hatton Garden. ... The night found them in Rye, a southern place that Mamie had chosen—she had so often longed to see it.
The boy and girl shared everything in those two weeks—pain and bliss, the joy of early morning, the wistfulness of twilight and the first white star. Their money was in one purse; they spent it together, choosing things to eat and drink, or little gifts that would remind them when their hour was come. Over their young heads hung the shadow; they had the courage to outface it; to-morrow was yet distant, and when it dawned they would praise God for what had been, and could never be removed. ... They knew all there was to know; and a strange pride thrilled them, a tenderness that neither had foreseen. Love was even greater than their dreams of it and their fore-knowledge. The sea's strength and the land's strength had tested soul and body, had blessed these two with infinite renewals, an unassailable virginity.
From Rye and Winchelsea they had wandered to Hythe along that coast-line, avoiding Dungeness, and pausing at Lydd, New Romney, and Dymchurch with its sands. Each morning they had bathed, and often at sunset; these old places fascinated them, and especially Mamie, who came from Lansing, in the State of Michigan.
"What a lot you know!" he said one day, amazed at her book learning.
"I'm going to be a school teacher," she laughed back, "and besides, I like it. No, it's not the history—the dates and things—that fascinates me; but I seem to have been here before," she explained, adding: "Lots of us Americans feel that way about it—as though—as though——"
"You'd come from here?" he helped her.
"That's right—as though we'd come from here. And perhaps we have," she added gaily, finishing with "Our name's Berridge, so we must have done."
"I never look upon you as a foreigner," said he; "at least, I haven't since——" and he hesitated.
"Since?" she inquired.
"Since I first wanted to kiss you."
"Do it again!"
Jimmy was quite prepared to take up the challenge, but she had fled. He caught her behind the plump Martello Tower where she was hiding, and did it again. After that they returned to firmer ground, sitting on the beach and looking out over the Channel.
"You must leave that old bank," began Mamie; "it's served its purpose."
"It brought us together."
"Yes, that's just it. And now it's brought us together——"
"We can drop it?" He had seen her point.
"I don't want you to go on working for them," she pursued; "I want you to work for us—for me."
Jimmy nodded. "I've thought of that as well," he answered.
"They give you a wretched salary, and when you're an old Gazook and nobody wants you, they say, 'Perhaps it's time he got married,' and put you in charge of a little office like that at Seacombe."
"That's it," said Jimmy.
"Banking's no good in this old country unless you're somebody's son, or rich on your own account. But I know what," she added, brightening.
Jimmy sat up.
"You must get into some regular article like woollens or cottons or manufactured things—a good salesman's always got a chance."
"D'you know, I've thought of that as well?" cried young Baker. "My brother Tom travels with wholesale groceries, and he's doing well."
"If you haven't got money, you've got to make business, and then the firm's bound to pay you—it can't help itself. My old uncle was always saying that."
And so it was resolved that, when Mamie went back to America, Jim should quit the bank and get hold of a "regular article." Only that way could they two come together again, unless they wished to wait till he had become the "old Gazook" of Mamie's prophecy.
The day of parting came. He stood on the quay at Liverpool and watched the great boat out of sight. A mist filled his eyes; but when, at last, he turned on his heel and faced reality once more, a courage rose within him, and he resolved to conquer or to perish. He would conquer—conquer—conquer. All the way to London the train seemed to be repeating that burden, seemed to be branding it, stamping it in deep-bitten letters on his heart of hearts. And with that repetition mingled an ineffaceable memory of her and her fine courage. They had kissed good-bye that morning in the room of their hotel, and again in the tiny cabin where there was scarce room to swing a cat. "Believe in me," he had whispered, her slim body close pressed to his own; and once more "Believe in me, believe in me!" ... "If I didn't believe in you," she had answered, "I would just drop overboard, and no more said." ... "And if there's anything else, when you get over there, you'll tell me?" She had understood him. ... "I'll tell, of course I'll tell;" and then: "It's no fun being a woman, is it, Jim?" she had added, with a little laugh. ... Now in the train he fed on those last moments, and he would conquer or perish. "Conquer—conquer—conquer," echoed the on-rushing train.
He was in Seacombe that night, and had given notice next morning. "Got another job?" asked the manager; and "Yes, in London," answered young Baker. The other seemed to envy him his chance of escape. A month from then, armed with a first-class character and seven pounds in gold, Jimmy set out for the metropolis. He had told his father as much as he dared tell that unromantic old man. He hadn't been home for his holiday this year, he said, because he wanted to get away somewhere quiet and think about his future. Now he had come to a decision. Unless one had capital or influence, banking was no good; for a poor man it was best to learn about some staple article like woollens or cotton or coal, and stick to that. His father said: "We'll see," and the rest of that week-end passed much as usual. ... "D'you know, I think you're right?" said the old man on the Monday morning; "I never thought much of that banking, but your mother says it's a genteel trade, almost like parsoning or being a lawyer."
Jim Baker went up to London, and these West-Country folk being a sturdy stock, no one at home, or even at Seacombe, had any doubt but that he would find a living. Mamie, meanwhile, had removed to Buffalo, New York, and had there begun her school teaching. Letters came and went; at first by every post, then not quite so often, and at last it was agreed that, when there was nothing of any consequence to say, a post-card would be enough. "I don't want you to be worried by all this," wrote Mamie; "you've got your work to do, and I guess I've got mine." Sometimes to the romantic youth she seemed the least bit hard-hearted. He mustn't let the thought of her hinder him, she insisted; yet often she wrote two letters to his one.
Baker's business hours were spent in looking for the staple article. He tried several before he dropped on to his feet; cocoa to begin with, then clocks and watches, and, finally, leather. He resolved to stick to leather—firstly, because everybody used it; and, secondly, because he felt instinctively that the man who had engaged him was of the sort who would give a fellow a chance. This gentleman, a middle-aged Scotsman, Campbell by name, had a warehouse in Bermondsey, and to him young Baker went as invoice clerk. Now he wrote leather to Mamie, who answered for a while on cards. A suspicion flashed across him during this fancied period of neglect; but she had said no word about that—and she had promised. The suspicion died down with her first long letter. She had removed to Cleveland, where she had taken a new position. That explained it all, and Mamie was forgiven.
The next year he spoke French and German after a fashion of his own, and could attend to foreign customers. In the autumn he was promoted to the warehouse and allowed to sell. One day he went out and came back with a contract running into four figures; and then, instead of an increase of salary, he stipulated for a small commission. His employer made no opposition; indeed, Mr. Campbell rather preferred this new arrangement. Baker was beginning to put by money. And from across the ocean came an answering whoop, shouts and ecstasies of triumph, as, step by step, these two drew nearer to the Promised Land. Her letters had now become a spur, a call—never a goad, never a lash; but there they were, egging him on, a challenge and yet a support, a martial music playing him into battle. In the night he blessed her; often he lay awake, groping for the memory of that sweet slim body. ... So passed the years till he had made a home for her.
The long-awaited day had dawned at last. His commissions had reached the sum they had agreed; with his savings he had taken a modest house and furnished it. She had only to walk inside. He told his chief, now become his friend; he took him into his confidence and unfolded their whole story.
"So that's what put the devil inside you!" cried Campbell, and slapped him on the back. "Go you off to Liverpool," he added, "and don't come back till you're wanted. Make it a week. Baker; for you're not indispensable, though you think you are. And tell the dear girl I sent you, and that I want to shake hands with her—she's given me the best salesman in all Bermondsey, d'ye hear that?"
Jimmy heard it and laughed; and there was a pride in his laughter as well as a deep joy. Few men had a wife like his, he knew—scarce one in all he had run across these six hot years. Arrived home that night, he found the last letter she had posted from the other side.
"Husband and lover," she wrote, "hold on to something tight. I have a dear surprise for you. I am bringing your boy to his father. I never told you before, because I wanted you to be free, because I wanted you to go ahead and not bother about me and about us. He was born in the spring, when I only sent post-cards. That was why I only sent post-cards, and that was why I removed to Cleveland afterwards. I had my marriage paper to show, so it didn't matter much, and I let out and worked for the two of us; and now he's close on six years old. He's just like you, Jim: the same sturdy limbs, the same clear forehead, and good blue eyes. With him I have been able to bear all this separation. He knows you and loves you, and to-day he is mad with joy, because, at last, we are going to live with father. Forgive me for hiding this from you; but I didn't want to be a drag upon you. I wanted you to have a clear road and go the shortest way. When you meet us at Liverpool, you'll tell me whether I did right."
"My God," cried Jimmy Baker, "my God, I've got a son as well! And it was like her, too—like her to say nothing and stand aside for me!"
In Liverpool Baker met them, and the boy was just as she had described him, with his father's eyes and forehead, and strength of chest and limb. That subtle something which makes blood know its own blood, flesh its own flesh, united these two on the landing-stage. Mamie stood aside holding in her tears, as father and son hugged one another for the first time. He had kissed her before the child, and she was glad of that. His quick embrace, his look of pride, had been a reassurance, a reward, that wiped out in one stroke the pain of those long years, their doubts, their fears, suspenses, and privations. From a slip of a girl she had grown into splendid womanhood; and he, the lad that she remembered, was standing there—a man.
They left the boy with grandparents and aunts, a whole cloud of new relations; and then alone they stole off to Seacombe and Dunster, and the shadow of Dunkery Beacon.
It was May. Earth, sea, and sky were tender with their own tenderness; in the youth of all things green, new fledged, or bursting into flower, they found echo and symbol of their own renewal. Lovers they had been here, when he had served in "that old bank"; and lovers they were once more, now that steadfastness and self-mastery had brought them a far deeper passion.
"Would you go through it all over again?" he asked her, knowing her answer ere he spoke.
"Over and over again, if it had to be—but God is merciful to lovers," she replied. "I have learnt that thinking—thinking how it all happened."
"I too," he said. Few things there were that these two had not thought together, though time and ocean rolled between.
London claimed them, and work and their new home. Mr. Campbell invited himself to supper on the evening of their arrival.
"The living image of you, Baker," he said, when Jimmy, junior, was introduced, "the living image!" And then, "I want you to stay on with us in Bermondsey; you can have a share—call it 'Campbell & Baker,' shall we, Mamie?" For the old ruffian had insisted on addressing Mamie by her Christian name.
The offer was accepted, and in parting, "Only one man in a thousand could have done what you have done," said Mr. Campbell; "and only one woman in a hundred thousand, Mamie. You've done the impossible; you're geniuses," he ended, laughing at them; and, as an afterthought, "If my boy ever gets married on the quiet and plays the fool, I'll break his blethering neck for him!"