Wrecked in Port/Book I, Chapter VII

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Chapter VII.A New Friend.

When they stood in the street, with the fresh night wind blowing upon them, the old man stopped, and, peering anxiously into his companion's face, said, abruptly, "Better?"

"Much better, thank you; quite well, in fact. There's no occasion for me to trouble you any more; I——"

"What? All gaff—eh? Old Jack Byrne sold—eh? Swallowed his brandy, and want to cut? Is that the caper?"

"I beg your pardon, I don't quite clearly understand you, I'm sorry to say"—for Walter knew by the tone of his voice that the old man was annoyed—"I'm very weak, and rather stupid—I mean to say in—in the ways and the talk of London—and I don't clearly follow what you said to me just now; only you were so kind to me at first, that——"

"Provinces!" muttered the old man to himself. "Just like me; treating him to my pavement patter, and thinking he understood it! All right, I think, as far as one can judge; though God knows that's often wrong enough!" Then, aloud, "Kind! nonsense! I'm an odd old skittle, and talk an odd language; but I've seen the ups and downs of life, my lad, and can give you good advice if I can't give anything else. Have you anything to do to-night? Nothing? Sure I'm not keeping you from the opera or any swell party in Park-lane? No! Then come home with me and have a bit o' pickled salmon and a glass of cold gin-and-water, and let's talk matters out."

Before he had concluded his sentence, the old man had slipped Joyce's arm through his own, and was making off at a great rate and also with an extraordinary shamble, in which his shoulder appeared to act as a kind of cutwater, while his legs followed considerably in the rear. Walter held on to him as best he could, and in this fashion they made their way through the back streets, across St. Martin's-lane, and so into Leicester-square. Then, as they arrived in front of a brilliantly lighted establishment, at the door of which cabs laden with fashionably dressed men and gaudily dressed women were continually disgorging their loads, while a never ceasing stream of pedestrians poured in from the street, Jack Byrne came to a sudden halt, and said to his companion, "Now I'm going to enjoy myself!"

Walter Joyce had noticed the style of people pouring in through the turnstiles and paying their admission money at the brilliantly lit boxes; and as he heard these words he unconsciously drew back. You see he was but a country-bred young man, and had not yet been initiated into the classical enjoyments of London Life. Jack Byrne felt the tug at his arm, and looked at him curiously. "What is it?" said he. "You thought I was going in there? I? Oh, my dear young friend, you'll have to learn a great deal yet; but you're on the suspicious lay, and that's a chalk to you! You thought I'd hocussed the brandy I gave you at Bliffkins's; you thought I was going to take you into this devil's crib, did you? Not I, my dear boy; I'd as soon take you in as myself, and that's saying a good deal. No; I told you I was going to enjoy myself—so I am. My enjoyment is in watching that door, and marking those who go through it—not in speculating on what's going on inside, but in waiting for the end, my young friend—in waiting for the end! Oh, yes, jump out of your brougham, my Lord Tomnoddy; but don't split your lavender gloves in attempting to close the door behind you—the cad will do that, of course! Beautiful linen, white as snow, and hair all stuck close to his head, look; but mark his forehead—what's your name?—Joyce? Mark his forehead, Joyce; see how it slopes straight away back. Look at that noble space between his nose and his upper lip—the ape type, my friend—the ape type! That's one of your hereditary rulers, Joyce, my boy! That fellow sits and votes for you and me, bless him! He's gone in now to improve his mind with the literature of comic songs, and the legs of the ballet, and the fascinations of painted Jezebels, and to clear his brain with drinks of turpentine and logwood shavings! And that's one of our hereditary legislators! Oh, Lord, how much longer—how much longer!"

The policeman on duty at the door, whose duty it was to keep the pathway clear, now sallied forth from the portico and promenaded in the little crowd, gently pushing his way amongst them with a monotonous cry of "Move on there, please—move on!" Joyce noticed that his companion regarded this policeman with a half defiant, half pitying air, and the old man said to him, as they resumed their walk, "That's another of the effects of our blessed civilisation!—that gawk in blucher boots and a felt helmet—that machine in a shoddy great coat, who can scarcely tell B from a bull's foot, and yet has the power to tell you and me and other men, who pay for the paving rate—ay, and for the support of such scum as he is, for the matter of that—to move on! Suppose you think I'm a rum 'un, eh?" said Mr. Byrne, suddenly changing his voice of disgust into a bantering tone. "Not seen many like me before; don't want to see any more, perhaps?"

"I don't say that," said Joyce, with a half smile; "but I confess the sentiments are new to me, and——"

"Brought up in the country, my lord or the squire, eh? So pleased to receive notice coming out of church, 'plucks the slavish hat from the villager's head,' and all that! Sorry I've not a manorial hall to ask you into, but such as it is you're welcome. Hold hard, here!"

The old man stopped before a private door in a small street of very small shops running between Leicester-square and the Haymarket, took out a key, and stood back for his companion to pass before him into a dark and narrow passage. When the door was closed behind him, Mr. Byrne struck a light, and commenced making his way up the narrow staircase. Joyce followed him flight after flight, and past landing after landing, until at length the top story was reached. Then Mr. Byrne took out another key, and, unlocking the door immediately in front of him, entered the room, and bade his companion follow him.

Walter Joyce found himself in a long low room, with a truckle bed in one corner, bookshelves ranged round three sides, and in the middle, over which the curtains were now drawn, a large square table, with an array of knives and scissors upon it, a heap of wool in one corner, and an open case of needles of various kinds, polished bright and shining. On one end of the mantelpiece stood a glass case containing a short-horned white owl, stuffed, and looking wonderfully sagacious; on the other a cock, with full crop and beady eye, and open bill, with one leg advanced, full of self-sufficiency and conceit. Over the mantelpiece, in a long low case, was an admirably carried out bit of Byrne's art, representing the death-struggles of a heron struck by a hawk. Both birds were stuffed, of course, but the characteristics of each had been excellently preserved; the delicate heron lay completely at the mercy of his active little antagonist, whose "pounce" had evidently just been made, and who with beak and talons was settling his prey.

While Joyce was looking round at these things, the old man had lit a lamp suspended from the ceiling, and another standing on the square work-table; had opened a cupboard, and from it had produced a black bottle, two tumblers, and a decanter of water; had filled and lit a mighty pipe, and had motioned his companion to make free with the liquor and with the contents of an ancient-looking tobacco jar, which he pushed towards him.

"Smoke, man!" said he, puffing out a thin line of vapour through his almost closed lips, and fanning it away lazily with his hand—"smoke!—that's one thing they can't keep from us, though they'd like. My lord should puff at his Havannah while the commonalty, the plebs, the profanum vulgus, who are hated and driven away, should 'exhale mundungus, ill-perfuming weed!' Thank God we've altered all that since poor Ambrose Phillips's day; he'd get better change for his Splendid Shilling now than ever he did in his time. Eh? Talking Greek to you, am I, or worse than Greek, for that you'd understand, I dare say, and you'll never understand my old mutterings and croakings. You can read Greek?"

"Yes," Joyce said; "I am reckoned a tolerable Grecian."

"Indeed!" said the old man, with a grin; "ah! no doubt you were an honour to your college!"

"Unfortunately," said Walter, "I have never been to college."

"Then your state is the more gracious! By George! I thought I'd picked up with a sucking don, all trencher cap, and second aorist, and Conservative principles, Church and State, a big Bible with a sceptre stretched across it, and a fear of the 'Swart mechanics' bloody thumbs' printed off on my lord's furniture, as provided by Messrs. Jackson and Graham! You don't follow me, young fellow? Like enough, like enough. I think myself I'm a little enigmatical when I get on my hobby, and it requires a good steady stare of honest wonderment, such as I see on your face now, to bring me up short. I'm brought up short now, and can attend to more sublunary matters, such as yours. Tell me about yourself."

"What shall I tell you?" asked Joyce. "I can tell nothing beyond what you already know, or can guess. I'm without friends, without work, I've lost hope——"

"No, no, my boy! not lost, only mislaid it. We never lose hope so long as we're good for anything! Sometimes, when I've been most depressed and down, about the only thing in life that has any interest for me now—and you've no idea what that is, have you, Joyce, eh?"

"No, indeed; unless, perhaps, your children!"

"Children! Thank God I never had a wife or a child to give me a care! No; the People's cause, my boy, the people's cause! That's what I live for; and sometimes, as I've been saying, I've been downhearted about that. I've seen the blood beating us down on the one side, and the money beating us down on the other, and I've thought that it was useless kicking against the pricks, and that we had better cave in and give up!"

"But you say you never lost hope?"

"Never, entirely! When I've been at my lowest ebb, when I've come home here with the blood in my veins tingling from aristocratic insult, and with worse than that, contempt for my own fellow working men surging up in my heart, I've looked up at that case there over the mantelshelf, and my pluck's revived! That's a fine bit of work that is, done by an old pupil of mine, who worked his soul out in the People's cause in '48, and died in a deep decline soon after. But what a fancy the lad had! Look at that heron! Is not it for all the world like one of your long, limp, yaw-yaw, nothing-knowing, nothing-doing young swells? Don't you read 'used-up' in his delicate plumage, drooping wings, lack-lustre eye? And remark how the jolly little hawk has got him! No breed about him, keen of sight, swift of wing, active with beak and talon—that's all he can boast of, but he's got the swell in his grip, mind you! And he's only a prototype of what's to come!"

The old man rose as he spoke, and taking the lamp from the table, raised it towards the glass case. As he set it down again he looked earnestly at Joyce, and said: "You think I'm off my head, perhaps—and I'm not sure that I'm not when I get upon this topic—and you're thinking that at the first convenient opportunity you'll slip away, with a 'Thank ye!' and leave the old lunatic to his democratic ravings? But, like many other lunatics, I'm only mad on one subject, and when that isn't mentioned I can converse tolerably rationally, can perhaps even be of some use in advising one friendless and destitute. And you, you say, are both."

"I am, indeed! but I scarcely think you can help me, Mr. Byrne, though I don't for an instant doubt your friendship or your wish to be of service. But it happens that the only people from whom I can hope to get anything in the way of employment, employment that brings money, belong to that class against which you have such violent antipathies, the—the 'swells,' as yon call them."

"My dear young fellow, you mistake me! If you do as I should like you, as an honest Englishman with a freeman's birthright, to do, if you do as I myself—old Jack Byrne, one of the prisoners of '48, 'Bitter Byrne,' as they call me at the club—if you do as I do, you'll hate the swells with all your heart, but you'll use 'em! When I was a young man, young and foolish, blind and headstrong, as all young men are, I wouldn't take off my cap to a swell, wouldn't take a swell's orders, wouldn't touch a swell's money! Lord bless you, I saw the folly of that years ago! I should have been starved long since if I hadn't. My business is bird-stuffing, as you may have heard or guessed, and where should I have been if I'd had to live upon all the orders for bird-stuffing I got from the labouring classes? They can't stuff themselves enough, let alone their birds! The swells want owls, and hawks, and pheasants, and what not stuffed with outspread wings for fire-screens, but the poor people want the fire itself, and want it so badly that they never hollow for screens, and wouldn't use 'em if they had 'em. No, no; hate the swells, my boy, but use 'em. What have you been?"

"An usher in a school!"

"Of course! I guessed it would be some of those delightful occupations for which the supply is unlimited and the demand nothing, but I scarcely thought it could be so bad as that! Usher in a school! hewer in a coal-pit, stone-breaker on a country road, horse in a mill, anything better than that!"

"What could I do?"

"What could you do? Sell your books, pawn your watch, take a steerage passage and go out to Australia. Black boots, tend sheep, be cad to an omnibus, or shopwalker to a store out there, every one of 'em better than dragging on in the conventional torture of this played-out staggering old country! That's a little gassy you'll think, and so it is, but I mean better than that. I've long-standing and intimate connexions with the Zoological Acclimatisation Society in Melbourne, and, if you can pay your passage out, I'll guarantee that in the introductions I give you, they'll find you something to do. If you can't find the money for your passage out, perhaps it can be found for you!"

Not since James Ashurst's death, not for some weeks before that event indeed, when the stricken man had taken leave of his old pupil and friend, had Walter Joyce heard the words of friendship and kindness from any man. Perhaps, a little unmanned by the disappointment and humiliation he had undergone since his arrival in London, he was a little unmanned at this speech from his newly found friend; at all events the tears stood in his eyes, and his voice was husky, as he replied:

"I ought to be very much obliged to you, and indeed, indeed I am! but I fear you'll think me an ungrateful cub when I tell you that I can't possibly go away from England. Possibly is a strong word, but I mean, that I can't think of it until I've exhausted every means, every chance of obtaining the barest livelihood here!"

The old man eyed him from under his bent brows earnestly for a moment, and then said abruptly. "Ties, eh? father?"

"No!" said Joyce, with a half blush—very young, you see, and country bred—"as both my mother and father are dead, but—but there is——"

"Oh Lord!" grunted Mr. Byrne; "of course there is, there always is in such cases! Blind old bat I was not to see it at first! Ah, she was left lamenting, and all the rest of it, quite knocks the Australian idea on the head! Now, let me think what can be done for you here! There's Buncombe and Co., the publishers, want a smart young man, smart and cheap they said in their letter, to contribute to their new Encyclopædia, The Naturalist. That'll be one job for you, though it won't be much."

"But, Mr. Byrne," said Joyce, "I have no knowledge, or very little, of natural history. Certainly not enough to——"

"Just too much to prevent your being too proud to take a hint or two from Goldsmith's Animated Nature, my boy, as he took several from those who preceded him. That, and a German book or two you'll find on the shelves—you understand German? That's right—will help you to all the knowledge Buncombe will require of you, or all they ought to expect for the matter of that, at ten and six the column. You can come here of a morning, you won't interfere with me, and grind away until dark, when we'll have a walk and a talk; you shall tell me all about yourself, and we'll see what more can be done, and then we'll have some food at Bliffkins's and learn all that's going on!"

"I don't know how to thank you," commenced Joyce.

"Then don't attempt to learn!" said the old man. "Does it suit you, as a begining only, mind! do you agree to try it—we shall do better things yet, I hope; but will you try it?"

"I will indeed! If you only knew——"

"I do! good-night! I got up at daybreak, and ought to have been in bed long since! Good-night!"

Not since he had been in London, had Walter Joyce been so light of heart as when he closed Mr. Byrne's door behind him. Something to do at last! He felt inclined to cry out for joy; he longed for some one to whom he could impart his good fortune.

His good fortune! As he sat upon his wretched bed in his tiny lodging, luxurious words rang in his ears. "And the chance of achieving fame and fortune, keep that in the foreground!" Fame and fortune! And he had been overjoyed because he had obtained a chance of earning a few shillings as a bookseller's hack, a chance for which he was indebted to a handicraftsman. But a poor first step towards fame and fortune, Marian would think! He understood how utter had been her inexperience, and his own; he had learned the wide distance between the fulfilment of such hopes as theirs, and the best of the bare possibilities which the future held for them, and the pain which this knowledge brought him, for the sake of his own share in it, was doubly keen for hers. It was very hard for Walter Joyce to have to suffer the terrible disappointment and disenchantment of experience; but it was far harder for him to have to cause her to share them. Marian would, indeed, think it a "poor first step." He little knew how much more decisive a one she was about to take herself.