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- The Town Traveller - 20/41 -
"I can't promise; I may want to ask you to do something for me. Just you be ready, that's all."
He promised exultingly, and when the evening came took up his position a full hour before Polly could be expected to come forth.
Now this was the first night of a new piece at Polly's theatre, and she, long watching in vain for the reappearance of the lady whose address she was to discover for Mr. Gammon, thought it a very possible thing that a person who had been twice to see the old entertainment might attend the first performance of the new. Her mysterious uncle had never again communicated with her, and Polly began to doubt what Mr. Gammon's knowledge really was; but she had given her confidence beyond recall, and, though with many vicissitudes of feeling, she still wished to keep Gammon sole ally in this strange affair. Once or twice indeed she had felt disposed to tell Christopher that there was "someone else"; but nothing Gammon had said fully justified this, and Polly, though an emotional young woman, had a good deal of prudence. One thing was certain, she very much desired to bring her old enemy to the point of a declaration. How she would receive it when it came she could not wholly determine.
Her conjecture regarding the unknown lady was justified. Among the first who entered the stalls was a man whom Polly seemed to remember, and close behind him came first a younger lady, then the one for whom her eyes had searched night after night. In supplying them with programmes Polly observed and listened with feverish attention. The elder woman had slightly grizzled hair; her age could not be less than fifty, but she was in good health and spirits. With the intention of describing her to Gammon, Polly noticed that she had a somewhat masculine nose, high in the bridge.
A quarter of an hour before the end of the piece Polly, dressed for departure, came forth and discovered her faithful slave.
"Now listen to me," she said, checking his blandishments. "I told you there might be something to do for me, and there is."
Parish was all eagerness.
"There'll be three people coming out from the stalls, a gentleman and two ladies. I'll show you them--see? They'll drive off in a kerridge--see? And I want you to find out where they go."
Nothing could have been more startling to Christopher, in whose mind began a whirl of suspicions and fears.
"Why? What for?" he asked involuntarily.
Polly was short with him.
"All right, if you won't do it say so, and I'll ask somebody else. I've no time to lose."
He gasped and stammered. Yes, yes, of course he would do it. He had not dreamt of refusing. He would run after the carriage, however far.
"Don't be a silly. You'll have to take a 'ansom and tell the driver to follow--see?"
Yes, oh, yes, of course. He would do so. He trembled with excessive nervousness, and but for the sharp, contemptuous directions given him by Miss Sparkes must have hopelessly bungled the undertaking. Indeed, it was not easy to carry out in the confusion before a theatre when the audience is leaving, and bearing in mind the regulations concerning vehicles. Their scheme was based upon the certainty that the carriage must proceed at a very moderate pace for some two or three hundred yards; within that limit or a very little beyond it--at all events, before his breath was exhausted--Christopher would certainly be able to hail a cab.
"Tell the cabby they're friends of yours," said Polly, "and you're going to the same 'ouse. You look quite respectable enough with your 'igh 'at. That's what I like about you; you always look respectable."
"But--but he will set me down right beside the people."
"Well, what if he does, gooseberry? Can't you just pay him quietly? They'll think you're for next door."
"But--but it may be a big house by itself somewhere."
"Well, silly. They'll think it's a mistake, that's all. What's the matter in the dark? You do as I tell you. And when you've got to know the address--you can take your time about that, of course--come back along Shaftesbury Avenue and give three knocks at the door, and I'll come down."
It flashed through Christopher's mind that he would be terribly late in getting home, but there was no help for it. If he refused this undertaking, or failed to carry it out successfully, Polly would cast him off. The gloom of a desperate mood fell upon him. He had the feeling of a detective or of a criminal, he knew not which; the mystery of the affair was a hideous oppression.
Even the initial step, that of watching the trio of strangers into their brougham, was not without difficulty. The pavement began to be crowded. Clutching her slave by the arm, Polly managed. to hold a position whence she could see the people who descended the front steps of the theatre, and at length her energy was rewarded. The ladies she could not have recognized, for they were muffled against the night air, but their male companion she "spotted"--that was the word in her mind--with certainty.
"There! See those three? That's them," she whispered excitedly. "Off you go!"
And off he went, as if life depended upon it; his eyes on the brougham, his heart throbbing violently, moisture dropping from his forehead and making his collar limp. The carriage disengaged itself, the pace quickened, he began to run, and collided with pedestrians who cursed him. Now--now or never--a cab!
By good luck he plunged into a hansom wanting a fare.
"The carriage--friends of mine--that carriage!"
"Ketch 'em up?" asked the driver briskly.
As he flung himself into the vehicle he seriously feared he was on the point of breaking a blood vessel, never had he been at such extremity of breath. But his eyes clung to the brougham in dread lest he should lose sight of it, or confuse it with another. The driver whipped his horse. Thank goodness, the carriage remained well in sight. But if there should come a block! A perilous point was Piccadilly Circus. Never, it seemed to him, had the streets of London roared with such a tumult of traffic. Right! The Circus was passed; now Piccadilly with its blessed quietness. What a speed they kept! Hyde Park Corner, Knightsbridge, and--what road was that? Christopher's geography failed him; he pretended to no familiarity with the West End. On swept his hansom in what he felt to be a most impudent pursuit; nay, for all he knew, it might subject him to the suspicion of the police. The cabby need not follow so close; why, the horse's nose all but touched the brougham now and then. How much farther? How was he to get back? He could not possibly reach home till one in the morning.
The brougham made a sharp curve, the hansom followed. Then came a sudden stop.
THE NAME OF GILDERSLEEVE
A square--imposing houses about a space of verdure. That was what Christopher perceived as he looked wildly round, flung back the apron, jumped out. His position was awful; voices of the persons alighting from the brougham seemed to sound at his very ear; he had become one of the party; the man in evening dress stared at him. But even in this dread moment so bent was he on fulfilling his mission that he at once cast an eye over the front of the house to fix it in his memory. There was a magnificent display of flowers at every window; the houses immediately right and left had no flowers at all.
Then he fumbled for money. Coppers, a sixpence, a shilling, no other small change, and he durst not offer so little as eighteenpence. (However, Heaven be thanked! the people had gone in and the brougham was moving away.) In his purse he had half a sovereign.
"Got change?" he inquired as boldly as possible.
"How much?" returned the driver curtly, for he had noticed with curiosity that his fare exchanged no greeting with the carriage people and that the door was shut.
"Change for half a sovereign. Seven shillings would do."
"Ain't got it. See, fourpence in 'apence, that's all."
The man's eye began to alarm Christopher. He shook with indecision, he gulped down his bitterness, he handed the golden coin.
"All right; never mind change."
"Thanky, sir. Good night."
And Mr. Parish was alone on the pavement. So grievously did he feel for the loss of that half-sovereign that for some moments he could think of nothing else. His heart burned against Polly. What had she got to do with those people in the big house? How could he be sure that it did not imply some shameful secret? And he must go throwing away his hard-earned money! Gladly he would have spent it on a supper for Polly; but to pay ten shillings for a half-crown drive! A whole blessed half-sovereign!
Another carriage drove up and stopped at the next house. Christopher remembered that he must discover the address, an easy matter enough. He found that the square was called Stanhope Gardens; he noted the
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