Tommy & Co. (Windsor Magazine, 1903-04)/'Tommy' Shows Aptitude for Journalism
“TOMMY” SHOWS APTITUDE FOR JOURNALISM
“ COME in!” said Peter Hope.
Peter Hope was tall and thin, clean-shaven but for a pair of side whiskers close-cropped and terminating just below the ear, with hair of the kind referred to by sympathetic barbers as “getting a little thin on the top, sir,” but arranged with economy, that everywhere is poverty's true helpmate. About Mr. Peter Hope's linen, which was white though somewhat frayed, there was a self-assertiveness that invariably arrested the attention of even the most casual observer. Decidedly there was too much of it—its ostentation aided and abetted by the retiring nature of the cut-away coat, whose chief aim clearly was to slip off and disappear behind its owner's back. “I'm a poor old thing,” it seemed to say. “I don't shine—or, rather, I shine too much among these up-to-date young modes. I only hamper you. You would be much more comfortable without me.” To persuade it to accompany him, its proprietor had to employ force, keeping fastened the lowest of its three buttons. At every step, it struggled for its liberty. Another characteristic of Peter's, linking him to the past, was his black silk cravat, secured by a couple of gold pins chained together. Watching him as he now sat writing, his long legs encased in tightly strapped grey trousering crossed beneath the table, the lamplight falling on his fresh-complexioned face, upon the shapely hand that steadied the half-written sheet, a stranger might have rubbed his eyes, wondering by what hallucination he thus found himself in presence seemingly of some young beau belonging to the early 'forties; but looking closer, would have seen the many wrinkles.
“Come in!” repeated Mr. Peter Hope, raising his voice, but not his eyes.
The door opened, and a small, white face, out of which gleamed a pair of bright, black eyes, was thrust sideways into the room.
“Come in!” repeated Mr. Peter Hope for the third time. “Who is it?”
A hand not over clean, grasping a greasy cloth cap, appeared below the face.
“Not ready yet,” said Mr. Hope. “Sit down and wait.”
The door opened wider, and the whole of the figure slid in and, closing the door behind it, sat itself down upon the extreme edge of the chair nearest.
“Which are you—Central News or Courier?” demanded Mr. Peter Hope, but without looking up from his work.
The bright, black eyes, which had just commenced an examination of the room by a careful scrutiny of the smoke-grimed ceiling, descended and fixed themselves upon the one clearly defined bald patch upon his head that, had he been aware of it, would have troubled Mr. Peter Hope. But the full, red lips beneath the turned-up nose remained motionless.
That he had received no answer to his question appeared to have escaped the attention of Mr. Peter Hope. The thin, white hand moved steadily to and fro across the paper. Three more sheets were added to those upon the floor. Then Mr. Peter Hope pushed back his chair and turned his gaze for the first time upon his visitor.
To Peter Hope, hack journalist, long familiar with the genus Printer's Devil, small white faces, tangled hair, dirty hands, and greasy caps were common objects in the neighbourhood of that buried rivulet, the Fleet. But this was a new species. Peter Hope sought his spectacles, found them after some trouble under a heap of newspapers, adjusted them upon his high, arched nose, leant forward, and looked long and up and down.
“God bless my soul!” said Mr. Peter Hope. “What is it?”
The figure rose to its full height of five foot one and came forward slowly.
Over a tight-fitting garibaldi of blue silk, excessively décolleté, it wore what once had been a boy's pepper-and-salt jacket. A worsted comforter wound round the neck still left a wide expanse of throat showing above the garibaldi. Below the jacket fell a long, black skirt, the train of which had been looped up about the waist and fastened with a cricket-belt.
“Who are you? What do you want?” asked Mr. Peter Hope.
For answer, the figure, passing the greasy cap into its other hand, stooped down and, seizing the front of the long skirt, began to haul it up.
“Don't do that!” said Mr. Peter Hope. “I say, you know, you——”
But by this time the skirt had practically disappeared, leaving to view a pair of much-patched trousers, diving into the right-hand pocket of which the dirty hand drew forth a folded paper, which, having opened and smoothed out, it laid upon the desk.
Mr. Peter Hope pushed up his spectacles till they rested on his eyebrows, and read aloud—“'Steak and Kidney Pie, 4d.; Do. (large size), 6d.; Boiled Mutton——'”
“That's where I've been for the last two weeks,” said the figure,—“Hammond's Eating House!”
The listener noted with surprise that the voice—though it told him as plainly as if he had risen and drawn aside the red rep curtains, that outside in Gough Square the yellow fog lay like the ghost of a dead sea—betrayed no Cockney accent, found no difficulty with its aitches.
“You ask for Emma. She'll say a good word for me. She told me so.”
“But, my good——” Mr. Peter Hope, checking himself, sought again the assistance of his glasses. The glasses being unable to decide the point, their owner had to put the question bluntly:
“Are you a boy or a girl?”
“You don't know!”
“What's the difference?”
Mr. Peter Hope stood up, and taking the strange figure by the shoulders, turned it round slowly twice, apparently under the impression that the process might afford to him some clue. But it did not.
“What is your name?”
“Anything you like. I dunno. I've had so many of 'em.”
“What do you want? What have you come for?”
“You're Mr. Hope, ain't you, second floor, 16, Gough Square?”
“That is my name.”
“You want somebody to do for you?”
“You mean a housekeeper!”
“Didn't say anything about housekeeper. Said you wanted somebody to do for you—cook and clean the place up. Heard 'em talking about it in the shop this afternoon. Old lady in green bonnet was asking Mother Hammond if she knew of anyone.”
“Mrs. Postwhistle—yes, I did ask her to look out for someone for me. Why, do you know of anyone? Have you been sent by anybody?”
“You don't want anything too 'laborate in the way o' cooking? You was a simple old chap, so they said; not much trouble.”
“No—no. I don't want much—someone clean and respectable. But why couldn't she come herself? Who is it?”
“Well, what's wrong about me?”
“I beg your pardon,” said Mr. Peter Hope.
“Why won't I do? I can make beds and clean rooms—all that sort o' thing. As for cooking, I've got a natural aptitude for it. You ask Emma; she'll tell you. You don't want nothing 'laborate?”
“Elizabeth,” said Mr. Peter Hope, as he crossed and, taking up the poker, proceeded to stir the fire, “are we awake or asleep?”
Elizabeth thus appealed to, raised herself on her hind legs and dug her claws into her master's thigh. Mr. Hope's trousers being thin, it was the most practical answer she could have given him.
“Done a lot of looking after other people for their benefit,” continued “Tommy.” “Don't see why I shouldn't do it for my own.”
“My dear—I do wish I knew whether you were a boy or a girl. Do you seriously suggest that I should engage you as my housekeeper?” asked Mr. Peter Hope, now upright with his back to the fire.
“I'd do for you all right,” persisted Tommy. “You give me my grub and a shake-down and, say, sixpence a week, and I'll grumble less than most of 'em.”
“Don't be ridiculous,” said Mr. Peter Hope.
“You won't try me?”
“Of course not; you must be mad.”
“All right. No harm done.” The dirty hand reached out towards the desk, and possessing itself again of “Hammond's Bill of Fare,” commenced the operations necessary for bearing it away in safety.
“Here's a shilling for you,” said Mr. Peter Hope.
“Rather not,” said Tommy. “Thanks all the same.”
“Nonsense!” said Mr. Peter Hope.
“Rather not,” repeated Tommy. “Never know where that sort of thing may lead you to.”
“All right,” said Mr. Peter Hope, replacing the coin in his pocket. “Don't!”
The figure moved towards the door.
“Wait a minute. Wait a minute,” said Mr. Peter Hope irritably.
The figure, with its hand upon the door, stood still.
“Are you going back to Hammond's?”
“No. I've finished there. Only took me on for a couple o' weeks, while one of the gals was ill. She came back this morning.”
“Who are your people?”
Tommy seemed puzzled. “What d'ye mean?”
“Well, whom do you live with?”
“You've got nobody to look after you—to take care of you?”
“Take care of me! D'ye think I'm a bloomin' kid?”
“Then where are you going to now?”
Peter Hope's irritation was growing.
“I mean, where are you going to sleep? Got any money for a lodging?”
“Yes, I've got some money,” answered Tommy. “But I don't think much o' lodgings. Not a particular nice class as you meet there. I shall sleep out to-night. 'Tain't raining.”
Elizabeth uttered a piercing cry.
“Serves you right!” growled Peter savagely. “How can anyone help treading on you when you will get just between one's legs. Told you of it a hundred times.”
The truth of the matter was that Peter was becoming very angry with himself. For no reason whatever, as he told himself, his memory would persist in wandering to Ilford Cemetery, in a certain desolate corner of which lay a fragile little woman whose lungs had been but ill adapted to breathing London fogs; with, on the top of her, a still smaller and still more fragile mite of humanity that, in compliment to its only relative worth a penny-piece, had been christened Thomas—a name common enough in all conscience, as Peter had reminded himself more than once. In the name of common sense, what had dead and buried Tommy Hope to do with this affair? The whole thing was the veriest sentiment, and sentiment was Mr. Peter Hope's abomination. Had he not penned articles innumerable pointing out its baneful influence upon the age? Had he not always condemned it, wherever he had come across it in play or book? Now and then the suspicion had crossed Peter's mind that, in spite of all this, he was somewhat of a sentimentalist himself—things had suggested this to him. The fear had always made him savage.
“You wait here till I come back,” he growled, seizing the astonished Tommy by the worsted comforter and spinning it into the centre of the room. “Sit down, and don't you dare to move.” And Peter went out and slammed the door behind him.
“Bit off his chump, ain't he?” remarked Tommy to Elizabeth, as the sound of Peter's descending footsteps died away. People had a way of addressing remarks to Elizabeth. Something in her manner invited this.
“Oh, well, it's all in the day's work,” commented Tommy cheerfully, and sat down as bid.
Five minutes passed, maybe ten. Then Peter returned, accompanied by a large, restful lady, to whom surprise—one felt it instinctively—had always been, and always would remain, an unknown quantity.
“That's the—the article,” explained Peter.
Mrs. Postwhistle compressed her lips and slightly tossed her head. It was the attitude of not ill-natured contempt from which she regarded most human affairs.
“That's right,” said Mrs. Postwhistle; “I remember seeing 'er there—leastways, it was an 'er right enough then. What 'ave you done with your clothes?”
“They weren't mine,” explained Tommy. “They were things what Mrs. Hammond had lent me.”
“Is that your own?” asked Mrs. Postwhistle, indicating the blue silk garibaldi.
“What went with it?”
“Tights. They were too far gone.”
“What made you give up the tumbling business and go to Mrs. 'Ammond's?”
“It gave me up. Hurt myself.”
“Who were you with last?”
“And before that?”
“Oh! heaps of 'em.”
“Nobody ever told you whether you was a boy or a girl?”
“Nobody as I'd care to believe. Some of them called me the one, some of them the other. It depended upon what was wanted.”
“How old are you?”
Mrs. Postwhistle turned to Peter, who was jingling keys. “Well, there's the bed upstairs. It's for you to decide.”
“What I don't want to do,” explained Peter, sinking his voice to a confidential whisper, “is to make a fool of myself.”
“That's always a good rule,” agreed Mrs. Postwhistle, “for those to whom it's possible.”
“Anyhow,” said Peter, “one night can't do any harm. To-morrow we can think what's to be done.”
“To-morrow” had always been Peter's lucky day. At the mere mention of the magic date his spirits invariably rose. He now turned upon Tommy a countenance from which all hesitation was banished.
“Very well, Tommy,” said Mr. Peter Hope, “you can sleep here to-night. Go with Mrs. Postwhistle, and she'll show you your room.”
The black eyes shone.
“You're going to give me a trial?”
“We'll talk about all that to-morrow.” The black eyes clouded.
“Look here. I tell you straight, it ain't no good.”
“What do you mean? What isn't any good?” demanded Peter.
“You'll want to send me to prison.”
“Oh, yes. You'll call it a school, I know. You ain't the first that's tried that on. It won't work.” The bright, black eyes were flashing passionately. “I ain't done any harm. I'm willing to work. I can keep myself. I always have. What's it got to do with anybody else?”
Had the bright, black eyes retained their expression of passionate defiance, Peter Hope might have retained his common sense. Only Fate arranged that instead they should suddenly fill with wild tears. And at sight of them Peter's common sense went out of the room disgusted, and there was born the history of many things.
“Don't be silly,” said Peter. “You didn't understand. Of course I'm going to give you a trial. You're going to 'do' for me. I merely meant that we'd leave the details till to-morrow. Come, housekeepers don't cry.”
The little wet face looked up.
“You mean it? Honour bright?”
“Honour bright. Now go and wash yourself. Then you shall get me my supper.”
The odd figure, still heaving from its paroxysm of sobs, stood up.
“And I have my grub, my lodging, and sixpence a week?”
“Yes, yes; I think that's a fair arrangement,” agreed Mr. Peter Hope, considering. “Don't you, Mrs. Postwhistle?”
“With a frock—or a suit of trousers—thrown in,” suggested Mrs. Postwhistle. “It's generally done.”
“If it's the custom, certainly,” agreed Mr. Peter Hope. “Sixpence a week and clothes.”
And this time it was Peter that, in company with Elizabeth, sat waiting the return of Tommy.
“I rather hope,” said Peter, “it's a boy. It was the fogs, you know. If only I could have afforded to send him away!”
Elizabeth looked thoughtful. The door opened.
“Ah! that's better, much better,” said Mr. Peter Hope. “'Pon my word, you look quite respectable.”
By the practical Mrs. Postwhistle a working agreement, benefiting both parties, had been arrived at with the long-trained skirt; while an ample shawl arranged with judgment disguised the nakedness that lay below. Peter, a fastidious gentleman, observed with satisfaction that the hands, now clean, had been well cared for.
“Give me that cap,” said Peter. He threw it in the glowing fire. It burned brightly, diffusing strange odours.
“There's a travelling cap of mine hanging up in the passage. You can wear that for the present. Take this half-sovereign and get me some cold meat and beer for supper. You'll find everything else you want in that sideboard or else in the kitchen. Don't ask me a hundred questions, and don't make a noise,” and Peter went back to his work.
“Good idea, that half-sovereign,” said Peter. “Shan't be bothered with 'Master Tommy' any more, don't expect. Starting a nursery at our time of life. Madness.” Peter's pen scratched and spluttered. Elizabeth kept an eye upon the door.
“Quarter of an hour,” said Peter, looking at his watch. “Told you so.” The article on which Peter was now engaged appeared to be of a worrying nature.
“Then why,” said Peter, “why did he refuse that shilling? Artfulness,” concluded Peter, “pure artfulness. Elizabeth, old girl, we've got out of this business cheaply. Good idea, that half-sovereign.” Peter gave vent to a chuckle that had the effect of alarming Elizabeth.
But luck evidently was not with Peter that night.
“Pingle's was sold out,” explained Tommy, entering with parcels; “had to go to Bow's in Farringdon Street.”
“Oh!” said Peter, without looking up.
Tommy passed through into the little kitchen behind. Peter wrote on rapidly, making up for lost time.
“Good!” murmured Peter, smiling to himself, “that's a neat phrase. That ought to irritate them.”
Now, as he wrote, while with noiseless footsteps Tommy, unseen behind him, moved to and fro and in and out the little kitchen, there came to Peter Hope this very curious experience: it felt to him as if for a long time he had been ill—so ill as not even to have been aware of it—and that now he was beginning to be himself again; consciousness of things returning to him. This solidly furnished, long, oak-panelled room with its air of old-world dignity and repose—this sober, kindly room in which for more than half his life he had lived and worked—why had he forgotten it? It came forward greeting him with an amused smile, as of some old friend long parted from. The faded photos, in stiff, wooden frames upon the chimney-piece, among them that of the fragile little woman with the unadaptable lungs. “Bless my soul!” said Mr. Peter Hope, pushing back his chair. “It's thirty years ago. How time does fly! Why, let me see, I must be——”
“D'you like it with a head on it?” demanded Tommy, who had been waiting patiently for signs.
Peter shook himself awake and went to his supper.
A bright idea occurred to Peter in the night. “Of course; why didn't I think of it before? Settle the question at once.” Peter fell into an easy sleep.
“Tommy——” said Peter, as he sat himself down to breakfast the next morning. “By the by,” asked Peter with a puzzled expression, putting down his cup, “what is this?”
“Cauffee,” informed him Tommy. “You said cauffee.”
“Oh!” replied Peter. “For the future, Tommy, if you don't mind, I will take tea of a morning.”
“All the same to me,” explained the agreeable Tommy—“it's your breakfast.”
“What I was about to say,” continued Peter, “was that you're not looking very well, Tommy.”
“I'm all right,” asserted Tommy; “never nothing the matter with me.”
“Not that you know of, perhaps; but one can be in a very bad way, Tommy, without being aware of it. I cannot have anyone about me that I am not sure is in thoroughly sound health.”
“If you mean you've changed your mind and want to get rid of me——” began Tommy, with its chin in the air.
“I don't want any of your uppishness,” snapped Peter, who had wound himself up for the occasion to a degree of assertiveness that surprised even himself. “If you are a thoroughly strong and healthy person, as I think you are, I shall be very glad to retain your services. But upon that point I must be satisfied. It is the custom,” explained Peter. “It is always done in good families. Run round to this address”—Peter wrote it upon a leaf of his notebook—“and ask Dr. Smith to come and see me before he begins his round. You go at once, and don't let us have any argument.”
“That is the way to talk to that young person—clearly,” said Peter to himself, listening to Tommy's footsteps dying down the stairs. Hearing the street-door slam, Peter stole into the kitchen and brewed himself a cup of coffee.
Dr. Smith, who had commenced life as Herr Schmidt, but who in consequence of difference of opinion with his Government was now an Englishman with strong Tory prejudices, had but one sorrow: it was that strangers would mistake him for a foreigner. He was short and stout, with bushy eyebrows and a grey moustache, and looked so fierce that children cried when they saw him, until he patted them on the head and addressed them as “mein leedle frent” in a voice so soft and tender that they had to leave off howling just to wonder where it came from. He and Peter, who was a vehement Radical, had been cronies for many years, and had each an indulgent contempt for the other's understanding, tempered by a sincere affection for one another they would have found it difficult to account for.
“What tink you is de matter wid de leedle wench?” demanded Dr. Smith, Peter having opened the case. Peter glanced round the room. The kitchen door was closed.
“How do you know it's a wench?”
The eyes beneath the bushy brows grew rounder. “If it is not a wench, why dress it——”
“Haven't dressed it,” interrupted Peter. “Just what I'm waiting to do—so soon as I know.” And Peter recounted the events of the preceding evening.
Tears gathered in the doctor's small, round eyes. His absurd sentimentalism was the quality in his friend that most irritated Peter.
“Poor leedle waif!” murmured the soft-hearted old gentleman. “It was the good Providence that guided her—or him, whichever it be.”
“Providence be hanged!” snarled Peter. “What was my Providence doing—landing me with a gutter-brat to look after?”
“So like you Radicals,” sneered the doctor, “to despise a fellow human creature just because it may not have been born in burple and fine linen.”
“I didn't send for you to argue politics,” retorted Peter, controlling his indignation by an effort. “I want you to tell me whether it's a boy or a girl, so that I may know what to do with it.”
“What mean you to do wid it?” inquired the doctor.
“I don't know,” confessed Peter. “If it's a boy, as I rather think it is, maybe I'll be able to find it a place in one of the offices—after I've taught it a little civilisation.”
“And if it be a girl?”
“How can it be a girl when it wears trousers?” demanded Peter. “Why anticipate difficulties?”
Peter, alone, paced to and fro the room, his hands behind his back, his ear on the alert to catch the slightest sound from above.
“I do hope it is a boy,” said Peter, glancing up.
Peter's eyes rested on the photo of the fragile little woman gazing down at him from its stiff frame upon the chimney-piece. Thirty years ago, in this same room, Peter had paced to and fro, his hands behind his back, his ear alert to catch the slightest sound from above, had said to himself the same words.
“It's odd,” mused Peter—“very odd indeed.”
The door opened. The stout doctor, preceded at a little distance by his watch-chain, entered and closed the door behind him.
“A very healthy child,” said the doctor; “as fine a child as any one could wish to see. A girl.”
The two old gentlemen looked at one another. Elizabeth, possibly relieved in her mind, began to purr.
“What am I to do with it?” demanded Peter.
“A very awkward position for you,” agreed the sympathetic doctor.
“I was a fool!” declared Peter.
“You haf no one here to look after de leedle wench when you are away,” pointed out the thoughtful doctor.
“And from what I've seen of the imp,” added Peter, “it will want some looking after.”
“I tink—I tink,” said the helpful doctor, “I see a way out!”
The doctor thrust his fierce face forward and tapped knowingly with his right forefinger the right side of his round nose. “I will take charge of de leedle wench.”
“To me de case will not present de same difficulties. I haf a housekeeper.”
“Oh, yes—Mrs. Whateley.”
“She is a goot woman when you know her,” explained the doctor. “She only wants managing.”
“Pooh!” ejaculated Peter.
“Why do you say that?” inquired the doctor.
“You! bringing up a headstrong girl. The idea!”
“I should be kind, but firm.”
“You don't know her.”
“How long haf you known her?”
“Anyhow, I'm not a soft-hearted sentimentalist; that would just ruin the child.”
“Girls are not boys,” persisted the doctor; “they want different treatment.”
“Well, I'm not a brute!” snarled Peter. “Besides, suppose she turns out rubbish! What do you know about her?”
“I take my chance,” agreed the generous doctor.
“It wouldn't be fair,” retorted honest Peter.
“Tink it over,” said the doctor. “A place is never home widout de leedle feet. We Englishmen love de home. You are different. You haf no sentiment.”
“I cannot help feeling,” explained Peter, “a sense of duty in this matter. The child came to me. It is as if this thing had been laid upon me.”
“If you look upon it dat way, Peter,” sighed the doctor.
“With sentiment,” went on Peter, “I have nothing to do; but duty—duty is quite another thing.” Peter, feeling himself an ancient Roman, thanked the doctor and shook hands with him.
Tommy, summoned, appeared.
“The doctor, Tommy,” said Peter, without looking up from his writing, “gives a very satisfactory account of you. So you can stop.”
“Told you so,” returned Tommy. “Might have saved your money.”
“But we shall have to find you another name.”
“If you are to be a housekeeper, you must be a girl.”
“Don't like girls.”
“Can't say I think much of them myself, Tommy. We must make the best of it. To begin with, we must get you proper clothes.”
“Hate skirts. They hamper you.”
“Tommy,” said Peter severely, “don't argue.”
“Pointing out facts ain't arguing,” argued Tommy. “They do hamper you. You try 'em.”
The clothes were quickly made, and after a while they came to fit; but the name proved more difficult of adjustment. A sweet-faced, laughing lady, known to fame by a title respectable and orthodox, appears an honoured guest to-day at many a literary gathering. But the old fellows, pressing round, still call her “Tommy.”
The week's trial came to an end. Peter, whose digestion was delicate, had had a happy thought.
“What I propose, Tommy—I mean Jane,” said Peter, “is that we should get in a woman to do just the mere cooking. That will give you more time to—to attend to other things, Tommy—Jane, I mean.”
“What other things?” chin in the air.
“The—the keeping of the rooms in order, Tommy. The—the dusting.”
“Don't want twenty-four hours a day to dust four rooms.”
“Then there are messages, Tommy. It would be a great advantage to me to have someone I could send on a message without feeling I was interfering with the housework.”
“What are you driving at?” demanded Tommy. “Why, I don't have half enough to do as it is. I can do all——”
Peter put his foot down. “When I say a thing, I mean a thing. The sooner you understand that, the better. How dare you argue with me! Fiddle-de-dee!” For two pins Peter would have employed an expletive even stronger, so determined was he feeling.
Tommy without another word left the room. Peter looked at Elizabeth and winked.
Poor Peter! His triumph was short-lived. Five minutes later, Tommy returned, clad in the long, black skirt, supported by the cricket belt, the blue garibaldi cut décolleté, the pepper-and-salt jacket, the worsted comforter, the red lips very tightly pressed, the long lashes over the black eyes moving very rapidly.
“Tommy” (severely), “what is this tomfoolery?”
“I understand. I ain't no good to you. Thanks for giving me a trial. My fault.”
“Tommy” (less severely), “don't be an idiot.”
“Ain't an idiot. 'Twas Emma. Told me I was good at cooking. Said I'd got an aptitude for it. She meant well.”
“Tommy” (no trace of severity), “sit down. Emma was quite right. Your cooking is—is promising. As Emma puts it, you have aptitude. Your—perseverance, your hopefulness proves it.”
“Then why d'ye want to get someone else in to do it?”
If Peter could have answered truthfully! If Peter could have replied—
“My dear, I am a lonely old gentleman. I did not know it until—until the other day. Now I cannot forget it again. Wife and child died many years ago. I was poor, or I might have saved them. That made me hard. The clock of my life stood still. I hid away the key. I did not want to think. You crept to me out of the cruel fog, awakened old dreams. Do not go away any more”—perhaps Tommy, in spite of her fierce independence, would have consented to be useful; and thus Peter might have gained his end at less cost of indigestion. But the penalty for being an anti-sentimentalist is that you must not talk like this even to yourself. So Peter had to cast about for other methods.
“Why shouldn't I keep two servants if I like?” It did seem hard on the old gentleman.
“What's the sense of paying two to do the work of one? You would only be keeping me on out of charity.” The black eyes flashed. “I ain't a beggar.”
“And you really think, Tommy—I should say Jane, you can manage the—the whole of it? You won't mind being sent on a message, perhaps in the very middle of your cooking. It was that I was thinking of, Tommy—some cooks would.”
“You go easy,” advised him Tommy, “till I complain of having too much to do.”
Peter returned to his desk. Elizabeth looked up. It seemed to Peter that Elizabeth winked.
The fortnight that followed was a period of trouble to Peter, for Tommy, her suspicions having been aroused, was sceptical of “business” demanding that Peter should dine with this man at the club, lunch with this editor at the “Cheshire Cheese.” At once the chin would go up into the air, the black eyes cloud threateningly. Peter, an unmarried man for thirty years, lacking experience, would under cross-examination contradict himself, become confused, break down over essential points.
“Really,” grumbled Peter to himself one evening, sawing at a mutton chop, “really there's no other word for it—I'm henpecked.”
Peter that day had looked forward to a little dinner at a favourite restaurant, with his “dear old friend Blenkinsopp, a bit of a gourmet, Tommy—that means a man who likes what you would call elaborate cooking!”—forgetful at the moment that he had used up “Blenkinsopp” three days before for a farewell supper, “Blenkinsopp” having to set out the next morning for Egypt. Peter was not facile at invention. Names in particular had always been a difficulty to him.
“I like a spirit of independence,” continued Peter to himself. “Wish she hadn't quite so much of it. Wonder where she got it from.”
The situation was becoming more serious to Peter than he cared to admit. For day by day, in spite of her tyrannies, Tommy was growing more and more indispensable to Peter. Tommy was the first audience that for thirty years had laughed at Peter's jokes; Tommy was the first public that for thirty years had been convinced that Peter was the most brilliant journalist in Fleet Street; Tommy was the first anxiety that for thirty years had rendered it needful that Peter each night should mount stealthily the creaking stairs, steal with shaded candle to a bedside. If only Tommy wouldn't “do” for him! If only she could be persuaded to “do” something else.
Another happy thought occurred to Peter.
“Tommy—I mean Jane,” said Peter, “I know what I'll do with you.”
“What's the game now?”
“I'll make a journalist of you.”
“Don't talk rot.”
“It isn't rot. Besides, I won't have you answer me like that. As a Devil—that means, Tommy, the unseen person in the background that helps a journalist to do his work—you would be invaluable to me. It would pay me, Tommy—pay me very handsomely. I should make money out of you.”
This appeared to be an argument that Tommy understood. Peter, with secret delight, noticed that the chin retained its normal level.
“I did help a chap to sell papers, once,” remembered Tommy; “he said I was fly at it.”
“I told you so,” exclaimed Peter triumphantly. “The methods are different, but the instinct required is the same. We will get a woman in to relieve you of the housework.”
The chin shot up into the air.
“I could do it in my spare time.”
“You see, Tommy, I should want you to go about with me—to be always with me.”
“Better try me first. Maybe you're making an error.”
Peter was learning the wisdom of the serpent.
“Quite right, Tommy. We will first see what you can do. Perhaps, after all, it may turn out that you are better as a cook.” In his heart Peter doubted this.
But the seed had fallen upon good ground. It was Tommy herself that manœuvred her first essay in journalism. A great man had come to London—was staying in apartments especially prepared for him in St. James's Palace. Said every journalist in London to himself: “If I could obtain an interview with this Big Man, what a big thing it would be for me!” For a week past, Peter had carried everywhere about with him a paper headed: “Interview of Our Special Correspondent with Prince Blank,” questions down left-hand column, very narrow; space for answers right-hand side, very wide. But the Big Man was experienced.
“I wonder,” said Peter, spreading the neatly folded paper on the desk before him, “I wonder if there can be any way of getting at him—any dodge or trick, any piece of low cunning, any plausible lie that I haven't thought of.”
“Old Man Martin—called himself Martini—was just such another,” commented Tommy. “Come pay time, Saturday afternoon, you just couldn't get at him—simply wasn't any way. I was a bit too good for him once, though,” remembered Tommy, with a touch of pride in her voice; “got half a quid out of him that time. It did surprise him.”
“No,” communed Peter to himself aloud, “I don't honestly think there can be any method, creditable or discreditable, that I haven't tried.” Peter flung the one-sided interview into the waste-paper basket, and slipping his notebook into his pocket, departed to drink tea with a lady novelist, whose great desire, as stated in a postscript to her invitation, was to avoid publicity, if possible.
Tommy, as soon as Peter's back was turned, fished it out again.
An hour later in the fog around St. James's Palace stood an Imp, clad in patched trousers and a pepper-and-salt jacket turned up about the neck, gazing with admiring eyes upon the sentry.
“Now, then, young seventeen-and-sixpence the soot,” said the sentry, “what do you want?”
“Makes you a bit anxious, don't it,” suggested the Imp, “having a big pot like him to look after?”
“Does get a bit on yer mind, if yer thinks about it,” agreed the sentry.
“How do you find him to talk to, like?”
“Well,” said the sentry, bringing his right leg into action for the purpose of relieving his left, “ain't 'ad much to do with 'im myself, not person'ly, as yet. Oh, 'e ain't a bad sort when yer know 'im.”
“That's his shake-down, ain't it?” asked the Imp, “where the lights are.”
“That's it,” admitted sentry. “You ain't an Anarchist? Tell me if you are.”
“I'll let you know if I feel it coming on,” the Imp assured him.
Had the sentry been a man of swift and penetrating observation—which he wasn't—he might have asked the question in more serious a tone. For he would have remarked that the Imp's black eyes were resting lovingly upon a rain-water-pipe, giving to a skilful climber easy access to the terrace underneath the Prince's windows.
“I would like to see him,” said the Imp.
“Friend o' yours?” asked the sentry.
“Well, not exactly,” admitted the Imp. “But there, you know, everybody's talking about him down our street.”
“Well, yer'll 'ave to be quick about it,” said the sentry. “'E's off to-night.”
Tommy's face fell. “I thought it wasn't till Friday morning.”
“Ah!” said the sentry, “that's what the papers say, is it?” The sentry's voice took unconsciously the accent of those from whom no secret is hid. “I'll tell yer what yer can do,” continued the sentry, enjoying an unaccustomed sense of importance. The sentry glanced left, then right. “'E's a slipping off all by 'imself down to Osborne by the 6.40 from Waterloo. Nobody knows it—'cept, o' course, just a few of us. That's 'is way all over. 'E just 'ates——”
A footstep sounded down the corridor. The sentry became statuesque.
At Waterloo, Tommy inspected the 6.40 train. Only one compartment indicated possibilities, an extra large one at the end of the coach next the guard's van. It was labelled “Reserved,” and in the place of the usual fittings was furnished with a table and four easy-chairs. Having noticed its position, Tommy took a walk up the platform and disappeared into the fog.
Twenty minutes later, Prince Blank stepped hurriedly across the platform, unnoticed save by half a dozen obsequious officials, and entered the compartment reserved for him. The obsequious officials bowed. Prince Blank, in military fashion, raised his hand. The 6.40 steamed out slowly.
Prince Blank, who was a stout gentleman, though he tried to disguise the fact, seldom found himself alone. When he did, he generally indulged himself in a little healthy relaxation. With two hours' run to Southampton before him, free from all possibility of intrusion, Prince Blank let loose the buttons of his powerfully built waistcoat, rested his bald head on the top of his chair, stretched his great legs across another, and closed his terrible, small eyes.
For an instant it seemed to Prince Blank that a draught had entered into the carriage. As, however, the sensation immediately passed away, he did not trouble to wake up. Then the Prince dreamed that somebody was in the carriage with him—was sitting opposite to him. This being an annoying sort of dream, the Prince opened his eyes for the purpose of dispelling it. There was somebody sitting opposite to him—a very grimy little person, wiping blood off its face and hands with a dingy handkerchief. Had the Prince been a man capable of surprise, he would have been surprised.
“It's all right,” assured him Tommy. “I ain't here to do any harm. I ain't an Anarchist.”
The Prince, by a muscular effort, retired some four or five inches and commenced to rebutton his waistcoat.
“How did you get here?” asked the Prince.
“'Twas a bigger job than I'd reckoned on,” admitted Tommy, seeking a dry inch in the smeared handkerchief, and finding none. “But that don't matter,” added Tommy cheerfully, “now I'm here.”
“If you do not wish me to hand you over to the police at Southampton, you had better answer my questions,” remarked the Prince drily.
Tommy was not afraid of princes, but in the lexicon of her harassed youth “Police” had always been a word of dread.
“I wanted to get at you.”
“I gather that.”
“There didn't seem any other way. It's jolly difficult to get at you. You're so jolly artful.”
“Tell me how you managed it.”
“There's a little bridge for signals just outside Waterloo. I could see that the train would have to pass under it. So I climbed up and waited. It being a foggy night, you see, nobody twigged me. I say, you are Prince Blank, ain't you?”
“I am Prince Blank.”
“Should have been mad if I'd landed the wrong man.”
“I knew which was your carriage—leastways, I guessed it; and as it came along, I did a drop.” Tommy spread out her arms and legs to illustrate the action. “The lamps, you know,” explained Tommy, still dabbing at her face—“one of them caught me.”
“And from the roof?”
“Oh, well, it was easy after that. There's an iron thing at the back, and steps. You've only got to walk downstairs and round the corner, and there you are. Bit of luck your other door not being locked. I hadn't thought of that. Haven't got such a thing as a handkerchief about you, have you?”
The Prince drew one from his sleeve and passed it to her. “You mean to tell me, boy——”
“Ain't a boy,” explained Tommy. “I'm a girl!”
She said it sadly. Deeming her new friends such as could be trusted, Tommy had accepted their statement that she really was a girl. But for many a long year to come the thought of her lost manhood tinged her voice with bitterness.
Tommy nodded her head.
“Umph!” said the Prince; “I have heard a good deal about the English girl. I was beginning to think it exaggerated. Stand up.”
Tommy obeyed. It was not altogether her way; but with those eyes beneath their shaggy brows bent upon her, it seemed the simplest thing to do.
“So. And now that you are here, what do you want?”
“To interview you.”
Tommy drew forth her list of questions.
The shaggy brows contracted.
“Who put you up to this absurdity? Who was it? Tell me at once.”
“Don't lie to me. His name?”
The terrible, small eyes flashed fire. But Tommy also had a pair of eyes. Before their blaze of indignation the great man positively quailed. This type of opponent was new to him.
“I'm not lying.”
“I beg your pardon,” said the Prince.
And at this point it occurred to the Prince, who being really a great man, had naturally a sense of humour, that a conference conducted on these lines between the leading statesman of an Empire and an impertinent hussy of, say, twelve years old at the outside, might end by becoming ridiculous. So the Prince took up his chair and put it down again beside Tommy's, and employing skilfully his undoubted diplomatic gifts, drew from her bit by bit the whole story.
“I'm inclined, Miss Jane,” said the Great Man, the story ended, “to agree with our friend Mr. Hope. I should say your métier was journalism.”
“And you'll let me interview you?” asked Tommy, showing her white teeth.
The Great Man, laying a hand heavier than he guessed on Tommy's shoulder, rose. “I think you are entitled to it.”
“What's your views?” demanded Tommy, reading, “of the future political and social relationships——”
“Perhaps,” suggested the Great Man, “it will be simpler if I write it myself.”
“Well,” concurred Tommy; “my spelling is a bit rocky.”
The Great Man drew a chair to the table.
“You won't miss out anything—will you?” insisted Tommy.
“I shall endeavour, Miss Jane, to give you no cause for complaint,” gravely he assured her, and sat down to write.
Not till the train began to slacken speed had the Prince finished. Then, blotting and refolding the paper, he stood up.
“I have added some instructions on the back of the last page,” explained the Prince, “to which you will draw Mr. Hope's particular attention. I would wish you to promise me, Miss Jane, never again to have recourse to dangerous acrobatic tricks, not even in the sacred cause of journalism.”
“Of course, if you hadn't been so jolly difficult to get at——”
“My fault, I know,” agreed the Prince. “There is not the least doubt as to which sex you belong to. Nevertheless, I want you to promise me. Come,” urged the Prince, “I have done a good deal for you—more than you know.”
“All right,” consented Tommy a little sulkily. Tommy hated making promises, because she always kept them. “I promise.”
“There is your Interview.” The first Southampton platform lamp shone in upon the Prince and Tommy as they stood facing one another. The Prince, who had acquired the reputation, not altogether unjustly, of an ill-tempered and savage old gentleman, did a strange thing: taking the little, blood-smeared face between his paws, he kissed it. Tommy always remembered the smoky flavour of the bristly grey moustache.
“One thing more,” said the Prince sternly—“not a word of all this. Don't open your mouth to speak of it till you are back in Gough Square.”
“Do you take me for a mug?” answered Tommy.
They behaved very oddly to Tommy after the Prince had disappeared. Everybody took a deal of trouble for her, but none of them seemed to know why they were doing it. They looked at her and went away, and came again and looked at her. And the more they thought about it, the more puzzled they became. Some of them asked her questions, but what Tommy really didn't know, added to what she didn't mean to tell, was so prodigious that Curiosity itself paled at contemplation of it.
They washed and brushed her up and gave her an excellent supper; and putting her into a first-class compartment labelled “Reserved,” sent her back to Waterloo, and thence in a cab to Gough Square, where she arrived about midnight, suffering from a sense of self-importance, traces of which to this day are still discernible.
Such and thus was the commencement of Tommy's journalistic career, leading to many histories still famous in the annals of Bohemia which stretches east and west from St. Bride's Street to the confines of Soho, which is bordered on the north by Bloomsbury and reaches south to the great water. Some of them, maybe, are worth telling: How Peter realised the great dream of his life and founded that short-lived but long-remembered periodical Good Humour, of which Tommy was sub-editor, and William Clodd, Esq.—but that, of course, was long ago, before he was Sir William Clodd, M.P., “Truthful Billy” as we called him then—the business manager and advertising agent; how Dandy Danvers danced at Court; how Mary Ramsbotham, whom we had all thought so sensible, became for quite six months a handsome woman; how—but I run on. Some other day—perhaps.