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- The Town Traveller - 4/41 -


A light tap at the door called Mrs. Clover away. She whispered outside with Minnie and returned smiling.

"Have you told her to be quick?"

Mrs. Clover did not answer the question. Sitting with her arms on the round table she looked Mr. Gammon steadily in the face, and said with decision

"Never you come here again after you've been to Dulwich!"

"Why not?"

"Never mind. I don't want to have to speak plainer. If ever I have to--"

Mrs. Clover made her great effect of the pregnant pause. The listener, who had sobered wonderfully, sat gazing at her, his blue eyes comically rueful.

"She isn't coming back at all?" fell from his lips.

"Of course she isn't."

"Well, I'm blest if I thought you could be so unkind, Mrs. Clover."

She was silent for three ticks of the clock, an odd hardness having come over her face, then, flushing just a little, as if after an effort, she smiled again, and spoke in her ordinary tone.

"What had you to say about Polly?"

"Polly?--Polly be hanged! I half believe Polly's no better than she should be."

The flush on Mrs. Clover's face deepened and she spoke severely.

"What do you mean by saying such things?"

"I didn't meant to," exclaimed Gammon, with hasty penitence. "Look here, I really didn't; but you put me out. She had some presents given her, that's all."

" I know it," said Mrs. Clover. "She's been here to-day--called this afternoon."

"Polly did?"

"Yes, and behaved very badly too. I don't know what's coming to the girl. If I had a temper like that I'd--"

What Mrs. Clover would do remained conjectural.

"It's a good thing," remarked the other, laughing. "Trust Polly to take care of herself. She cheeked you, did she?"

They discussed Miss Sparkes very thoroughly. There had been a battle royal in the afternoon, for the girl came only to "show off" and make herself generally offensive. Mrs. Clover desired to be friendly with her sister's daughter, but would stand no "cheek," and had said so.

"Polly's all right," remarked Mr. Gammon finally. "Don't you fret about her. She ain't that kind. I know 'em."

"Then why did you say just now--"

"Because you riled me, sending Minnie away."

Again Mrs. Clover reflected, and again she looked her friend steadily in the face.

"Why did you want her to stay?"

Mr. Gammon's heated visage glowed with incredible fervour. He shrugged his shoulders, shuffled his feet, and at length burst out with:

"Well, I should think you know. It isn't the first time I've showed it, I should think."

"Then I'm very sorry. I'm real sorry."

The words fell gently, and one might have thought that Mrs. Clover was softening the rejection of a tender proposal made to herself.

"You mean it's no good?" said the man.

"Not the least, not a bit. And never could be."

Mr. Gammon nodded several times, as if calculating the force of the blow, and nerving himself to bear it.

"Well, if you say it," he replied at length, "I suppose it's a fact--but I call it hard lines. Ever since I was old enough to think of marrying I've been looking out for the right girl--always looking out, and now I thought I'd found her. Hanged if it isn't hard lines! I could have married scores--scores; but do you suppose I'd have a girl that showed she was only waiting for me to say the word? Not me! That's what took me in Minnie. She's the first of that kind I ever knew--the only one. But, I say, do you mean you won't let me try? You surely don't mean that, Mrs. Clover?"

"Yes, I do. I mean just that, Mr. Gammon."

"Why? Because I haven't got a permanency?"

"Oh, no."

"Because I--because I go to Dulwich?"

"No."

"Why, then?"

"I can't tell you why, and I don't know why, but I mean it. And what's more"--her eyes sparkled--"if ever you say such word to Minnie you never pass my door again."

This seemed to take Mr. Gammon's breath away. After a rather long silence he looked about for his hat, then for his dog-whip.

"I'll say good night, Mrs. Clover. Hot, isn't it? Hottest day yet. I say, you're not riled with me? That's all right. See you again before long."

He did not make straight for home, but rambled in a circuit for the next hour. When darkness had fallen he found himself again near the china shop, and paused, for a moment only, by the door. On the opposite side of the street stood a man who had also paused in a slow walk, and who also looked towards the shop. But Mr. Gammon went his way without so much as a glance at that dim figure.

CHAPTER IV

POLLY AND MR. PARISH

Two first-rate quarrels in one day put Polly Sparkes into high good humour. On leaving her aunt's house in the afternoon she strolled into Battersea Park, and there treated herself to tea and cakes at a little round table in the open air. Mrs. Clover, though the quarrel was prolonged until four o'clock, had offered no refreshments, which seemed to Miss Sparkes a very gross instance of meanness and inhospitality.

At a table near to her sat two girls, for some reason taking a holiday, who conversed in a way which proved them to be "mantle hands," and Polly listened and smiled. Did she not well remember the day when the poverty of home sent her, a little girl, to be "trotter" in a workroom? But she soon found her way out of that. A sharp tongue, a bold eye, and a brilliant complexion helped her on, step by step, or jump by jump, till she had found much more agreeable ways of supporting herself. All unimpeachable, for Polly was fiercely virtuous, and put a very high value indeed upon such affections as she had to dispose of.

The girls were appraising her costume; she felt their eyes and enjoyed the envy in them. Her hat, with its immense bunch of poppies; her blouse of shot silk in green and violet; her gold watch, carelessly drawn out and returned to its pocket. "Now what do you think I am? A real lady, I'll bet!" She caught a whisper about her hair. Red, indeed! Didn't they wish they had anything like it! Polly could have told them that at a ball she graced with her presence not long ago her hair was done up with no less than seventy-two pins. Think of that! Seventy-two pins!

She munched a cream tart, and turned her back upon the envious pair.

Back to Kennington Road by omnibus, riding outside, her eyes and hair doing execution upon a young man in a very high collar, who was, she saw, terribly tempted to address her, but, happily for himself, could not pluck up courage. Polly liked to be addressed by strange young men; experience had made her so skilful in austere rebuke.

She rested in her bedroom, as stuffy and disorderly a room as could have been found in all Kennington Road. Moggie, the general, was only allowed to enter it in the occupant's presence, otherwise who knew what prying and filching might go on? She paid a very low rent, thanks to Mrs. Bubb's good nature, but the strained relations between them made it possible that she would have to leave, and she had been thinking to-day that she could very well afford a room in a better neighbourhood; not that, all things considered, she desired to quit this house, but Mrs. Bubb took too much upon herself. Mrs. Bubb was the widow of a police officer; one of her children was in the Police Orphanage at Twickenham, and for the support of each of the others she received half a crown a week. This, to be sure, justified the good woman in a certain spirit of pride; but when it came to calling names and making unpleasant insinuations--If a young lady cannot have a harmless and profitable secret, what is the use of being a young lady?


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