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- The Unclassed - 23/74 -
The old gentleman was sitting alone when the servant announced a visitor. In personal appearance he was scarcely changed since the visit of his little grand-daughter. Perhaps the eye was not quite so vivid, the skin on forehead and cheeks a trifle less smooth, but his face had the same healthy colour; there was the same repose of force in the huge limbs, and his voice had lost nothing of its resonant firmness.
"Ah!" he exclaimed, as Waymark entered. "You! I've been wondering where you were to be found."
The visitor held out his hand, and Abraham, though he did not rise, smiled not unpleasantly as he gave his own.
"You wanted to see me?" Waymark asked.
"Well, yes. I suppose you've come about the mines."
"Mines? What mines?"
"Oh, then you haven't come about them. You didn't know the Llwg Valley people have begun to pay a dividend?"
Waymark remembered that one of his father's unfortunate speculations had been the purchase of certain shares in some Welsh mines. The money thus invested had remained, for the last nine years, wholly unproductive. Mr. Woodstock explained that things were looking up with the company in question, who had just declared a dividend of 4 per cent. on all their paid-up shares.
"In other words," exclaimed Waymark eagerly, "they owe me some money?"
"Which you can do with, eh?" said Abraham, with a twinkle of good-humoured commiseration in his eye.
"Perfectly. What are the details?"
"There are fifty ten-pound shares. Dividend accordingly twenty pounds."
"By Jingo! How is it to be got at?"
"Do you feel disposed to sell the shares?" asked the old man, looking up sideways, and still smiling.
"No; on the whole I think not."
"Ho, ho, Osmond, where have you learnt prudence, eh?--Why don't you sit down?--If you didn't come about the mines, why did you come, eh?"
"Not to mince matters," said Waymark, taking a chair, and speaking in an off-hand way which cost him much effort, "I came to ask you to help me to some way of getting a living."
"Hollo!" exclaimed the old man, chuckling. "Why, I should have thought you'd made your fortune by this time. Poetry doesn't pay, it seems?"
"It doesn't. One has to buy experience. It's no good saying that I ought to have been guided by you five years ago. Of course I wish I had been, but it wasn't possible. The question is, do you care to help me now?"
"What's your idea?" asked Abraham, playing with his watch-guard, a smile as of inward triumph flitting about his lips.
"I have none. I only know that I've been half-starved for years in the cursed business of teaching, and that I can't stand it any longer. I want some kind of occupation that will allow me to have three good meals every day, and leave me my evenings free. That isn't asking much, I imagine; most men manage to find it. I don't care what the work is, not a bit. If it's of a kind which gives a prospect of getting on, all the better; if that's out of the question, well, three good meals and a roof shall suffice."
"You're turning out a devilish sensible lad, Osmond," said Mr. Woodstock, still smiling. "Better late than never, as they say. But I don't see what you can do. You literary chaps get into the way of thinking that any fool can make a man of business, and that it's only a matter of condescending to turn your hands to desk work and the ways clear before you. It's a mistake, and you're not the first that'll find it out."
"This much I know," replied Waymark, with decision. "Set me to anything that can be learnt, and I'll be perfect in it in a quarter the time it would take the average man."
"You want your evenings free?" asked the other, after a short reflection. "What will you do with them?"
"I shall give them to literary work."
"I thought as much. And you think you can be a man of business and a poet at the same time? No go, my boy. If you take up business, you drop poetising. Those two horses never yet pulled at the same shaft, and never will."
Mr. Woodstock pondered for a few moments. He thrust out his great legs with feet crossed on the fender, and with his hands jingled coin in his trouser-pockets.
"I tell you what," he suddenly began. "There's only one thing I know of at present that you're likely to be able to do. Suppose I gave you the job of collecting my rents down east."
"Weekly. It's a rough quarter, and they're a shady lot of customers. You wouldn't find the job over-pleasant, but you might try, eh?"
"What would it bring me in,--to go at once to the point?"
"The rents average twenty-five pounds. Your commission would be seven per cent. You might reckon, I dare say, on five-and-thirty shillings a week."
"What is the day for collecting?"
"Mondays; but there's lots of 'em you'd have to look up several times in a week. If you like I'll go round myself on Tuesday-- Easter Monday's no good--and you can come with me."
"I will go, by all means," exclaimed Waymark
Talk continued for some half-hour. When Waymark rose at length, he expressed his gratitude for the assistance promised.
"Well, well," said the other, "wait till we see how things work. I shouldn't wonder if you throw it up after a week or two. However, be here on Tuesday at ten. And prompt, mind: I don't wait for any man."
Waymark was punctual enough on the following Tuesday, and the two drove in a hansom eastward. It was rather a foggy morning, and things looked their worst. After alighting they had a short walk. Mr. Woodstock stopped at the end of an alley.
"You see," he said, "that's Litany Lane. There are sixteen houses in it, and they're all mine. Half way down, on the left, runs off Elm Court, where there are fourteen houses, and those are all mine, too."
Waymark looked. Litany Lane was a narrow passage, with houses only on one side; opposite to them ran a long high wall, apparently the limit of some manufactory. Two posts set up at the entrance to the Lane showed that it was no thoroughfare for vehicles. The houses were of three storeys. There were two or three dirty little shops, but the rest were ordinary lodging-houses, the front-doors standing wide open as a matter of course, exhibiting a dusky passage, filthy stairs, with generally a glimpse right through into the yard in the rear. In Elm Court the houses were smaller, and had their fronts whitewashed. Under the archway which led into the Court were fastened up several written notices of rooms to be let at this or that number. The paving was in evil repair, forming here and there considerable pools of water, the stench and the colour whereof led to the supposition that the inhabitants facilitated domestic operations by emptying casual vessels out of the windows. The dirty little casements on the ground floor exhibited without exception a rag of red or white curtain on the one side, prevailing fashion evidently requiring no corresponding drapery on the other. The Court was a _cul de sac_, and at the far end stood a receptacle for ashes, the odour from which was intolerable. Strangely enough, almost all the window-sills displayed flower-pots, and, despite the wretched weather, several little bird-cages hung out from the upper storeys. In one of them a lark was singing briskly.
They began their progress through the tenements, commencing at the top of Litany Lane. Many of the rooms were locked, the occupiers being away at their work, but in such case the rent had generally been left with some other person in the house, and was forthcoming. But now and then neither rent nor tenant was to be got at, and dire were the threats which Abraham bade the neighbours convey to the defaulters on their return. His way with one and all was curt and vigorous; to Waymark it seemed needlessly brutal. A woman pleading inability to make up her total sum would be cut short with a thunderous oath, and the assurance that, if she did not pay up in a day or two, every stick would be carried off. Pitiful pleading for time had absolutely no effect upon Abraham. Here and there e tenant would complain of high rent, and point out a cracked ceiling, a rotten piece of stairs, or something else imperatively calling for renovation. "If you don't like the room, clear out," was the landlord's sole reply to all such speeches.
In one place they came across an old Irish woman engaged in washing. The room was hung with reeking clothes from wall to wall. For a time it was difficult to distinguish objects through the steam, and Waymark, making his way in, stumbled and almost fell over an open box. From the box at once proceeded a miserable little wail, broken by as terrible a cough as a child could be afflicted with; and Waymark then perceived that the box was being used as a cradle, in which lay a baby gasping in the agonies of some throat disease, whilst drops from the wet clothing trickled on to its face.
On leaving this house, they entered Elm Court. Here, sitting on the doorstep of the first house, was a child of apparently nine or ten, and seemingly a girl, though the nondescript attire might have concealed either sex, and the face was absolutely sexless in its savagery. Her hair was cut short, and round her neck was a bit of
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