Mr. Parslow’s Fellow-Traveller
Mr. Parslow must surely have felt that he was living in a dream when he encountered the anomalous individual, who became his travelling companion from London to Leigh Outwardly a boy and with all the earmarks of the insolent office species he possessed a depth of discernment and a wisdom that was extraordinary for one of his years. Mr. Parslow was bewildered and the reader is bewildered too right to the end of the story.
MR. SAMUEL PARSLOW, with many sighs and grunts, settled his huge carcase in the cushions of a first-class smoker. A worrying day in the city had not improved his temper, and he looked forward to an hour of quiet seclusion on his homeward journey. The few travelers who glanced into his compartment were favored with a glare that sent them further along the platform, and Mr. Parslow, with a cigar between his lips, lolled back with satisfaction as the train started. Then suddenly there came a shouting and a fumbling at the handle of the door, and a small human object, as* sisted in the rear by the guard, came tumbling anyhow into the carriage.
The intruder recovered his equilibrium and returned Mr. Parslow’s resentful stare with a smile of placid assurance.
He was a little fellow of perhaps sixteen years, long, enough a city man to have acquired that self-confidence, not to say aggressiveness, common to office boys, but not long enough to have lost the color and roundness of his cheeks—a Raphael cherub after ten years’ experience of a hard but mightily interesting world. A neat little short black coat, and trousers, also short, encased a small but expanding frame with an effort that could not be much longersustained. To compensate for these deficiencies, a hat of the bowler variety, a full size too big, came well down over his head, giving the wearer a peculiarly old-fashioned appear-
ance, which was not diminished by an accessory handbag and a carefully rolled umbrella.
He produced a tobacco pouch, and, dexterously filling a small briar pipe, lit it and sent a cloud of smoke in the direction of Mr. Parslow. It had a nasty suggestion of shag about it, and gave the latter a much-desired opportunity to relieve his feelings.
“You’ve no business to smoke,” he said rudely.
The boy glanced casually up at the window, and his pink cheeks took a slightly rosier hue.
“It is a smoking carriage, I believe,” he replied.
He spoke in a broken treble, but with such easy assurance that Mr. Parslow, whose bullying manner was so effective in his counting house in Wood street, was visibly taken aback.
“I am quite aware of that,” he rejoined. “I mean, a boy your age has no business to smoke.”
“Indeed,” said the other in the same tones.
“Yes, sir, indeed,” said Mr. Parslow spitefully, his temper ruffling. “The habit, when indulged in youth, stunts the growth and enfeebles the brain.”
“If that is so,” replied the boy, quizzically eyeing Mr. Parslow’s gigantic proportions and not over intellectual features, “when I look at you and hear you speak, I am quite at a loss to judge whether you contracted the habit in early years or have only recently become a devotee of the weed.”
Mr. Parslow looked at him in astonishment and began to bluster.
“You knock that disgusting pipe out !” he demanded fiercely.
“Certainly,” said the boy ; “I will —when I’ve finished it.” And he smiled complacently at the big and
furious man, and filled the carriage with smoke.
Mr. Parslow banged down the windows and opened the ventilators with a good deal more violence than was necessary or becoming in a man of his years. To be flouted by a mere urchin ! The thought was well-nigh unbearable, and Mr. Parslow’s hand
itched to box his ears. But there was an expression in the boy’s eye that he had seen on occasions in Mrs. Parslow’s, and he sat down again.
“You’re a very rude little boy,” he said, lamely, “and have no right at all to be in this carriage.”
“My dear sir,” pleaded the other, with an irritating wave of a skinny and not particularly clean hand, “pray spare me that inevitable retort of the railway carriage disputant. You’re not, you’re really not going to ask me to show my ticket.”
“I’ll have you turned out at Leigh,” said Mr. Parslow furiously.
“Unfortunately we don’t stop before that.”
“You would have some difficulty to keep me in at Leigh, I can assure you,” replied the boy. “To be quite candid, I have a third, and should there be any unpleasantness with the officials, you, as a gentleman, will of course bear witness that I was put into this compartment—I might say thrown in, I think.”
“And will be thrown out, I promise you,” rejoined Mr. Parslow> with heat. “You are a most impertinent and audacious young rascal.”
“You forget yourself,” said the boy in a reproving voice. “And on second thoughts,” he added, “I can’t blame you. If I were you I should try to do the same.”
“You shall be thrown out,” reiterated Mr. Parslow, for lack of another retort. “You don’t appear to know who you’re talking to.”
“•Nor care,” said the boy.
“Perhaps you will care when I teU you I’m a director of this line,” continued the big man vulgarly.
“A director,” said the other, with a curious little smile hovering around the corner of his mouth. “Chairman, you mean, my dear sir. Make it chairman.”
Mr. Parslow was staggered. He sat looking hard and long at the greatest monster he had ever met in his life, and tried to think how he could reduce him to a proper state of respectful humility, and the monster, who might have weighed six stone, sat opposite, confident and entirely at his ease, swinging his little feet, which did not reach the floor by a couple of inches.
Staring at the enemy offered no solution to the difficulty, and did not disconcert the other. He was a mystery ; Mr. Parslow, picking his teeth
reflectively with a gold quill, gave it up. Then of a sudden it occurred to him that he was not a boy but a man. He had heard of such a case ; was not one to be seen in the neighborhood of the Stock Exchange any day during the last thirty years—a boy of sixteen, to all appearances ?
Mr. Parslow v/as convinced that here must be the explanation of his fellow-traveler’s conduct, but at the very moment he definitely arrived at that conclusion the object of his speculations knocked the ashes out of his pipe, and, opening his little handbag, took out an orange and consumed it with youthful avidity.
Mr. Parslow’s theory was shattered.
“I should have thought you were old enough to know that it is very rude to eat oranges in a railway carriage,” said he, blundering into the attack again.
“I must apologize,” said the other. “In my haste to catch the train I hadn’t time to iinish my dinner, so brought the dessert along with me. You, I take it,” he added conversationally, “dine at the more fashionable hour, although one might be disposed to assume, from the free use you are making of the toothpick, that you, too, had already partaken of that meal.”
Mr. Parslow actually changed color. The theory was taking form again, and he began to consider the best way out of an awkward position. After all, a man had no right to go about misleading people, and if he were treated as a boy he jiad only himself to blame.
In the excitement of the encounter Mr. Parslow had let his cigar out, and, opening his matchbox, was disgusted to find it empty. He went carefully through every pocket two
or three times in the hope of finding another box, and then discovered that the only matches within reach were in the possession of his fellow traveler. So he kept the unlit cigar between his lips, and looking out of the window became intensely interested in the sunset.
The boy was dealing noisily with his third orange, the smell of which, unpleasant to most people, was particularly offensive to Mr. Parslow. If he could only smoke it wouldn’t be so bad ; but he couldn’t, so sat fuming in spirit.
The dessert came to an end at last, and Mr. Parslow, without turning his head, became aware of the other refilling his pipe. An idea came into his head, the brilliance of which surpassed the sunset and almost startled him. He heard a match struck, and turning round, said as politely as he knew how :
“After you, sir, please.”
The tobacco was so long in lighting that the boy nearly burnt his fingers, and what was left of the match dropped expired to the floor.
“Sorry,” said the boy.
“Don’t mention it,” said Mr. Parslow, amiably.
“I mean, sorry I can’t oblige you,” said the other, putting the matches in his pocket. “After your remarks on the evil consequences of juvenile smoking you couldn’t possibly accept a light from me. That would be compounding a felony, and precocious and impudent though I may be, I do not care to put temptation in anybody’s way.”
Mr. Parslow forgot the oranges.
“I begin to think,” he said, apologetically, “I have made a very foolish mistake—”
“I can’t blame you, my dear sir,” interrupted the other, smiling.
“It’s very good of you,” murmured Mr. Parslow.
“Not at all,” said the boy ; “I was about to say that it is probably hereditary.”
“Appearances are sometimes very deceptive,” continued Mr. Parslow, failing to appreciate the relevance oi the last remark.
“Sometimes,” agreed the other. He was not assisting the big man in his difficulty.
“You, no doubt, are—er—very much older than I at first thought,” blundered on Mr. Parslow.
“I’ve turned ten,” said the boy, smiling.
“Well, let us say no more about it,” said Mr. Parslow in desperation. “Piave a cigar.”
For the first time the boy showed some signs of hesitation in his manner.
“They look rather strong,” he said; but he took one.
“Not too strong for smokers of our experience,” said Mr. Parslow, jocularly.
“I’m not accustomed to cigars,” confessed the boy. “My means pro hibit such luxuries.”
He tore the band off the cigar, and it occurred to Mr. Parslow, who kept his on, that he had seen gentlemen who ought to know better do the same thing.
“A Murias,” said the boy, rolling it critically between his fingers. “A good smoke, though I prefer a Larranaga on the rare occasion I indulge. You won’t take that unkindly, 1 know.”
Mr. Parslow inclined his head graciously ; he was waiting for the matches.
The other knocked his pipe out and put his hand in his trouser pocket for a knife. That useful article, however,
appeared to be missing, and in the search for it he disclosed some of the contents of his pockets.
Amongst other articles of youthful acquisition, Mr. Parslow observed with increasing bewilderment several
pieces of string, some foreign stamps, a perforated silver coin, two glass marbles and a jumping frog.
String was useful—Mr. Parslow invariably carried a piece himself ; and
as for foreign stamps, he knew boys of fifty who collected ; the coin, too, was probably off a watch-chain. But the marbles and jumping frog he was quite unable to reconcile, unless—and the thought came to him with some-
thing like a shock—unless he was taking them home for his children.
The object of these speculations returned the various articles to his pockets, and, biting the end of his
cigar, put it between his teeth and lit it.
“Yau will oblige me with a light now,” said Mr. Parslow, holding out his hand.
“I have already given my reason for not doing so,” said the boy, putting the match-box away again.
“But after accepting my cigar you surely can’t refuse,” said the outraged Mr. Parslow.
“I’ve no compunction on that score,” replied the other, rolling the smoke with his tongue and watching it float up to the roof of the carriage. “I know perfectly well why you gave it me—you hoped it would make me ill.”
“My dear sir,” protested Mr. Parslow, artfully, “why should I hope it would make you ill ?”
“Because,” said the other, “I am a most impudent young rascal, who will be thrown out at the first stopping-place by the justly incensed chairman — I mean director — of the line.”
Mr. Parslow looked a little shamefaced.
“I thought,” he said in an aggrieved voice, “you accepted my apology for an unfortunate misunderstanding. I certainly apologized.”
“Did you ?” rejoined the other. “Well, I would not have you think me ungracious.” And he passed the matches over.
Mr. Parslow lit his cigar, and, settling himself more comfortably in the corner, surreptitiously watched his fellow-traveler, who, deeming the unpleasant incident closed, had become absorbed in a newspaper. From where he sat, Mr. Parslow was unable to see what part of the paper he was interested in, and he fell to wondering whether it wras the leading article or cricket results ; in a circle of business
friends he was considered a “sport,” and would have bet even money either way.
He looked at the quaint little figure and fresh-complexioned face that bore not the faintest trace of hair on the upper lip ; and he thought of the oranges and the marbles and the jumping frog. Then he caught himself repeating some of the conversation that had passed between them, which did not reflect any great personal superiority, and he observed that the other was half-way through a big and strong cigar, and appeared to be enjoying it. Man or boy, he was a mystery.
More out of inquisitiveness, perhaps, than with any confidence of getting the better of further argument, Mr. Parslow opened on him again.
“We shall soon be running into Leigh,” he said. “Do you live there ?”
The boy glanced over the top of his paper with a look that boded no more success to Mr. Parslow’s curiosity than his aggression.
“No,” he replied simply.
Mr. Parslow was not to be put off so easily.
“Might I ask, without being guilty of rudeness,” he continued, “what your occupation may be ?”
“No,” repeated the other.
“I’m rather interested,” persisted Mr. Parslow. “I’m in the rag trade myself.”
“I gathered as much,” said the boy.
“Really,” said Mr. Parslow. “How ?”
The boy smiled.
“Well, railway directors do not generally travel with the Draper’s Record sticking half out of their pockets.”
“You are very keen,” said Mr.
Parslow. “Since you have discovered my business, PU make a guess at yours. You’re a schoolboy—teacher, I mean.”
He looked at the other narrowly.
“Well, Pm not usually interested in guessing games,” said the boy, “but I don’t mind telling you you’re wrong. Pm not a school teacher, although I do give a lesson occasionally.”
“Then you refuse to satisfy my not unnatural curiosity with regard to a most interesting personality,” said Mr. Parslow.
“As you insist,” replied the boy a little wearily, “I will tell you. I am a detective.”
“A detective !” gasped the astonished Mr. Parslow. “Well, that explains a good deal.”
“It certainly explains,” said the other, “an apparently hurried and undignified entry into a railway carriage where one has been anything but welcomed.”
“I don’t understand,” said Mr. Parslow, stiffly. “Perhaps you will be good enough to enlighten me ?”
“I will,” said the boy. “I am at present engaged to watch the movements of a notorious swindler known to the police as Sandy Simpson. Plis description is interesting. Height, six feet one and a half inches, bigchested and bigger waisted, dresses rather too well, florid complexion, small grey eyes, almost lost in baggy eyelids, red moustaches and side whiskers, as implied in his nickname —to be quite Vf rank, a description answering your own so accurately as to
cause me to embark on a journey of thirty miles and back for nothing.”
The train was running into Leigh.
“You are quite sure,” suggested Mr, Parslow with a sneer, “you haven’t found your man ?”
“Perfectly,” said the boy.
Mr. Parslow tried to look amused.
“When did you discover your mistake ?” he asked.
“The first moment you opened your mouth,” replied the other.
“Really,” said Mr. Parslow, “this is most diverting. By the teeth, I suppose ?”
“No,” said the boy, quietly, as the train pulled up at the station. “Sandy Simpson’s are false too.”
Pie got out and stood on the platform, holding the door open.
“I got on the wrong scent,” he continued, “as I’ve already said, by a great similarity of appearance. Both of you have the same abnormal physique, both the same simple—forgive me if 1 say silly expression. I discovered my error the first time you opened your mouth, for in the case of Sandy Simpson, the only thing silly about him is his expression.”
The train started suddenly, and the boy shut the door politely. Mr. Parslow sank back in the cushions in a confused state of perspiring indignation. A sudden impulse took him, and letting down the window, he put his head out for a last look at his fellow-traveler.
He was extracting a pennyworth of chocolate from an automatic machine.