Mr. Bloomin’ Nobody
BUT to his wife he was "Mr. Bloomin' Everyfink." An Armistice Day story that has nothing about war in it, but is the story of an `ero just the same.
TOWARD evening, (the drizzling rain of late November turned into a cruel driving sleet that made London shiver to its bones.
Herbert Simmons, the lading clerk with the River Home Line Company at Wapping Old Stairs, contemplated his two-mile walk to the bus with increasing apprehension. The office had closed punctually at six and the damp storage sheds were foul with imported hides, to the effluvium of which he had never been quite able to discipline his stomach. His rain-proof coat was—well, rain-proof no longer, despite all he had done to it with a borrowed bicycle-tyre repair ■ outfit. He could, of course, take a Bridge bus; but that meant an extra fare, and Herbert Simmons was one of London's millions whom sheer necessity forces to adhere, strictly and rigidly, to a shilling a we^k allowance for bus-rides. To-morrow, Saturday, he would get his pay as usual. He didn’t need to contemplate what to do with it. That three pounds balanced, exactly, the cares of his household and family; portioned out into shillings and pence it meticulously counteracted and expunged the bills accompanying Life’s little necessities.
He fingered his three remaining pennies no more. Turning up his coat collar and pulling his hat down over his ears, he set out against the beating rain, hoping his chest would get no worse, for they hadn’t yet paid for little Margaret’s scarlet fever. It was the same homeward journey he had taken regularly for four years. He knew every cracked and broken flagstone in the pavements, every shop and sign-post, intervening streets and lanes he cut across precisely at the same spot—though in his eagerness to be home his more impetuous self was always several turnings ahead of Un_
Herbert Simmons was only dimly conscious of this other self that lagged behind. He couldn’t seem to come face to face with it.
Sometimes it played him funny tricks; concerned itself with strange matters; was bitterly envious for money and for certain luxuries; longed to hide aboard one of those South American tramps and go sailing away deserting all cares and responsibilities. Mostly, however, it frightened him with whispers of old age and of being near the end of his tether.
' I '0-NIGHT, his parental spirit has * already reached Chapel street in North Brixton and entered the front door of the small house in the lower half of which he lived. Ethel is washing her eight-months-old baby, a chubby morsel of complacent humanity, marooned in a little tin bath-tub. Two boys, respectively ten and twelve, are seated on the window ledge ostensibly at their school lessons; another boy and a girl, the latter his only daughter, aged eight, the former nine, are playing toys on the sofa; while in a corner, gloriously secluded in his four-year old destructiveness. a smaller boy is happily engagedjin tearing up his father’s half-penny evening newspaper.
In the promiscuous concert of command, request, and immature opinion, he can hear what each is saying. Margaret, quitting her toys because Willie won’t play her way, begins a jargon of baby-talk to her little brother in the bath-tub, allowing him to put his wet fingers in her eyes and nose. Willie, joining Harry and Fred up at the window, wants to know what they are doing and seeing their drawn goal-posts an football fields immediately begs mo.her, ,u the thousandth time, to tell him when, exactly, he will get a new pai. of shoes so that he can use the old ones for football and have studs—not strips—-fastened on the soles like Harry’s. Mother returns him the same evasive though gentle answer, requesting his patience. Arthur, interrupted in his enjoyment of listening to the sound of tearing paper, is summarily picked up
by mother and lifted into the oft-used chair that has a tray which pulls down in front of him and on which is set his bread and milk. His hullabaloo, accompanied by lusty bangings with his spoon, commences as it eventually will end, at fortissimo. Fred then comes down from the window-ledge and with honeyed words intrigues Arthur into sampling the ambrosia placed before him.
Mother now lifts her naked, dripping infant on to her lap, dries and powders him, wraps him in swaddling clothes, and—while she turns the meat in the oven and makes the pudding—allows Margaret her nightly pleasure of holding him, blissfully associated with a milk-bottle, on the sofa. Margaret’s many sorrows take wing during this interlude and she is wholly little met ‘:i the second. Harry clears the table, and lays the white cloth with infinite care and precision. The clo.k ticks on the mantelpiece. A pungent odor of ing permeates the air. Father will soon be home. Mother hurries in and out, going at top speed, back into the kitchen to see if she put any salt in the rice pudding, then into her bedroom to get father’s slippers and a dry pair of woolen socks. Arthur is swallowing his bread and milk, spoonful by spoonful, regarding Fred’s magic with credulous blue eyes.
Now big mother takes the baby for a few moments, while little mother trips off to the kitchen to watch the potatoes come to a boil on the stove and lift the lid of the saucepan at the proper time. Everything is going along in fine style-. The bread and milk bowl and the baby’s bottle are soon empty; mother croons a few old songs, rocking in her chair, then tip-toes With her charge into the bedroom. Arthur’s hostility toward going to bed requires a more persuasive mentor than Fred, and Margaret takes up the task, first instructing Willie about the potatoes, which he forthwith ignores in
order to see if
the cheese in the mouse-trap
has been nibbled. Mother returns and resumes her duties. She was a soft-eyed creature, a good wife and mother, without whom the whole mechanism of home and children would cease, resulting in absolute chaos. What she does about the house in the way of mending, washing, and keeping the place clean as a pin, is a caution. Once—when she was a servant-maid in a
Portman Square mansion—she had been pretty. But her looks, her shapeliness, little by little with each successive child, has been willingly though subconsciously surrendered to—to England! Their sweethearting hadn’t lasted long; it had become assimilated, lost, in a thickening atmosphere of worries, a condition of father and mother responsibility to which they were now woefully resigned and....
Herbert Simmons, the lading clerk, battling with the elements along St. Katharine’s Way, opened his eyes; for, detached from her home and children, he saw Ethel walking toward him. He suddenly found her dull, colorless and shapeless. Her hair, once thick and pleasant to touch, was dank and bedraggled; her clothes didn’t fit; she looked, as she had always looked, dowdy. Lifeless, though never idle a moment, cold, though warm with sympathy, she was the sempiternal companion who lay, supinely, beside him every night. He shuddered. And the gusts of rain, curving and twisting this way and that, pouring round corners, revolving screechingly about the chimney pots, swept her up and away.
WHAT was this part of him that viewed such a miracle so dispassionately? Why did he wish that the vapory arms of this satanic heaven might sweep him, too, far away, utterly removed from the monotony of his daily grind, free from the automatic duties in connection with his home? In a swift attack of miserable dissatisfaction, he reviewed his life. Even in France, during the war, he had somehow been denied the slightest distinction of any kind. It hadn’t been for the want of trying, for the want of ambition. Once he had volunteered for the job of crawling through barbed wire and bombing an enemy outpost. Even that failed; a countermanding order withdrawing his battalion before his chance came. Wounded, gassed, no one ever noticed him; generals came and spoke comforting words to the man in the adjoining hospital cot, then passed on. The truth was, nothing exciting, nothing worth while had ever happened to him.
Herbert Simmons had long been aware of a latent desire to remedy his puerile insignificance. Like Micawber, he secretly hoped to meet round some corner a new and startling development into which he could precipitate himself. He had no clear notion as to what this development might be, but it had fame and fortume in it, and, he thought, silks and fineries. He was dully aware of his limitations. He believed he lacked the necessary education to better himself, and his common Cockneyism. of course, prohibited his becoming involved in the sort of adventure for which he longed. Certain half-hearted efforts had been made to correct these faults. After his second hospital discharge and while performing those exacting duties as batman to one of his battalion officers in France, he had picked up a few formerly dropped aitches and laboriously sewed them on to his meagre vocabulary. In other ways he had also improved himself by watching his officers and the manner in which they did and said things. Never at home, but once or twice at the office, he had imitated their superior way of speaking. But it gained him little more than amused glances, so he had given it up.
The wind and rain tearing down a street at right angles to his path, almost
knocked him down. Immersed in his thoughts, Herbert Simmons had entirely lost track of his whereabouts and to his surprise was compelled to look up at the name on the brick wall. It was Nightingale Lane. An exhilarating fancy, coming from nowhere, spun a web about him. Why not turn up Nightingale Lane instead of continuing along St. Katharine’s Way? Why not go contrary to the wishes of that methodical, puerile, other self already at home?
HE PRESSED his face against the corner-stone of a building, horribly alone in his temptation, feeling he was the only soul abroad in the whole of massive London. Against him the raging elements pitted all their strength and fury. Down Nightingale Lane came the storm’s legions, a phantom cavalry, their smoking draperies and misty limbs rising to incredible heights in contortions of jealous anger. Spellbound, he likened them to the obscure forces that in life kept him in the background, sealed him in the ranks of mere nobodies.
Why not oppose these forces here and now and by opposing them gain a victory? Nightingale Lane! The name itself suggested an avenue to a distant Arcadia for which some faint stirring in his breast indeterminately ached. Beyond Bethnal Green, passed the last few houses on the outskirts....
His legs were unwilling. They wanted to go on, the way they had always gone, along St. Katharine’s Way. Some stronger force inside him was regaining its supremacy.
Herbert Simmons, the father of six, shook his head as though it was all hopelessly beyond his understanding, then resumed his way; a little black speck moving along by the sides of silent houses, under and at the mercy of a howling universe.
Passing the Tower he dwelt, incomprehensibly, on the historic prisoners that famous old building had once held within its stone dungeons. The swirling rain tore madly round its battlements, suicided into its moat, dashed fiendishly against its turret windows, as if to release those chained ghosts. But all in vain. There was no escape from such irrevocable imprisonment.
He plodded on, along Lower Thames Street, across London Bridge: a solitary figure head bowed, hands thrust deep into pockets; homeward bound; step by step bringing nearer the little circle of wife and children. On the other side of the Thames he got an Elephant and Castle bus, paid out one of his precious pennies and settled down, his mind now blank, until he was deposited within easy distance of Chapel Street.
“Here’s farver, muvver!”
As he had surmised, supper was almost ready and Arthur and the baby put to bed. Margaret, at the sight of him, despite his wet clothes and sodden boots, came rushing toward him, precipitant with the sad news she had kept locked in her heart all day. “Farver,” she began, pressing his cold hand to her burning cheek; “I want to tell you somefink.”
“In a moment. Be careful, dear. I’m properly wet.” Mother interposed: “Margaret! Let your farver take off 'is wet fings, won’t you?”
“It’s a terrible night,” said Mr. Simmons, shivering a little. “W’ere shall I leave ’em, muvver? In the hall ’ere, or in the kitchen? My boots is properly soaked and everyfink. Hope there’s a pair of socks warming.” “Freddy! spread your farver an old newspaper. Come frough to the kitchen, ’Erbert.” She regarded him with anxious eyes. “Is it gone to your underclothes?”
“I don’t fink so.”
“All right. T’ere’s dry socks agen the ’ob for you.” Mr. Simmons crossed through, carefully stepping on the newspaper, Margaret still holding his hand.
“Now, Margaret, leave your pore farver alone, for goodness sake. ’Ow’s your chest, ’Erbert? I’ll give it a rub wiv the ointment to-night afore you go to bed.” Margaret, obeying her mother, went and hid herself by the window and began to cry softly. Approaching her, Willie asked in an audible tone:
“ ’Ave you told ’im, yet? ’Ave you told ’im yet?”
THE little girl, her confessional face hidden by the window curtains, shook her head.
“Told him wot?” inquired Harry, pricking up his ears. “Nuffink!”
“ ’Arry,” called mother, “run into me bedroom and get your farver’s uwer coat an’ west-coat, there’s a good lad. Be careful not to wake the baby, won’t you?” She turned to her husband. “Will you be changing your trousers, ’Erbert?”
“They’re pretty wet.”
“Well try an’ ’urry, dear, ’cause tea’s been ready a long w’ile. You ain’t ’arf late to-night.”
“Such an awful storm,” Mr. Simmons told her as he pulled off his boots. “Can you spare a little ’ot water, Effel? I’d better just dip me feet.”
“Get your farver the little barf, Willie, an’ a towel.” “But muvver, I’m awful hungry,” he complained.
“In a moment, me little lad.” Noticing Margaret weeping behind the curtains, she gently but firmly forced her to the centre of the room. “Now, Margaret, stop your sillying an’ be a good girl.” The child buried her tearful face in her mother’s apron, but used to the vagaries of her own sex Mrs. Simmons didn’t ask what was the matter; that remained for father.
In the kitchen, Harry and Willie were making themselves useful, with Fred looking on. Mr. Simmons was particularly careful of his aitches before Fred. The boy was at the top of his class and just lately had been given full marks in the school examinations. Already he had been talking about going to college, though where the money was to come from Mr. Simmons had no idea. “Now, Willie, hand me those socks. How did school go to-day, Harry?”
“Picked to play goal against Radnor street, tomorrow,” was the proud reply. “But—But—”
“I haven’t got football knickers, farver.”
“Won’t the old ones do, lad?”
“They’re all torn.”
“Couldn’t they be mended?’
“They look so patchy, farver. All the other boys’ll ’ave decent ones.”
Mr. Simmons was purposely silent. Deliberately avoiding further discussion on the subject, he glanced up at Willie. “How did the ’ome-work go this morning?” “Arithmetic all right; algebra all wrong.”
“Ah well—” Mr. Simmons decided on discretion. He couldn’t help him there, but neither Willie nor Harry had as yet discovered what Fred, for some mysterious reason, kept to himself: their father’s ignorance.
“I can’t never get it right,” said Willie, biting his finger nails. “Will you ’elp me again to-night, farver?” “We’ll see. But T can’t never get it right,’ isn’t quite correct, is it?”
“It ain’t,” contradicted Harry, pugnaciously.
Mr. Simmons timidly appealed to Fred. “What say, Fred?”
“Two negatives make an affirmative,” pronounced Fred in a remote voice that seemed to have nothing in common with any of them.
“Yes. That’s—that’s what I fought,” said his father miserably.
“ ’Erbert, do ’urry up, there’s a dear. The children is starving.”
Stocking-footing it into his bedroom, Mr. Simmons hurriedly changed his trousers, emerged with them over his arm, put hte wet clothes on the back of a chair near the stove, and entered the living room ready for the evening meal.
TT WAS waiting on the round table.
Margaret sat next to her father, Willie on the other side, and mother near the kitchen door, handy-like. Mr. Simmons never felt quite comfortable before all these hungry little mouths he was rightfully expected to feed. Many a time, when mother’s back was turned, would he slip an extra piece of mutton or a potato from his own on to Harry’s or Fred’s plate—growing, uncomplaining lads —and any little tit-bit that Ethel had lovingly placed before him was completely at the mercy of Margaret’s fork. He gave two raps, and immediately all bowed their heads while he reverently and hopefully said a prayer.
“No, Willie, that piece is for your farver,” corrected mother, as the nine-year old requested a particular portion of Yorkshire pudding.
“Let ’im ’ave it, Effel.”
“Now don’t hencourage ’im, ’Erbert. I cooked that bit hespecially for you. There’s plenty for all of us, see.”
Four pairs of hungry eyes watched the piling up of Mr. Simmons’ plate, which naturally came first of all; the best potatoes, the nicest meat, and an extra spoonful of gravy. Then came Harry’s helping, then Fred’s, then Willie’s, and, lastly, Margaret’s. Mrs. Simmons never got started until everyone had been served, but then she always appeared indifferent about it anyway and preferred to pick the meat bone and eat Willie’s and Margaret’s crusts instead of the nice, brown potatoes. Respective plates w’ere cleaned in no time, then came incessant demands for the pudding. It was rice pudding, with raisins. Perhaps Mrs. Simmons would get some, perhaps she wouldn’t. Sometimes she scraped the pan in which it had been baked, although when it was very tasty one of the boys got that privilege in addition to his regular helping.
“Effel,” complained Mr. Simmons, heroically, “I really can’t eat all this pudding. Let me put a little on a plate for you?”
“No, ’Erbert! I’ve got a bit saved in the kitchen.” Up to now, Mrs. Simmons, taking care of her brood, hadn’t eaten anything. “Now don’t give any of it to Margaret or Willie, will you? You need it yerself, ’Erbert.” Her earnest desire that the bread-winner be properly fed wras evidently not unanimous, for while her back was turned, two spoons coming from left and right, attacked Mr. Simmons’ pudding and considerably reduced its dimensions. But there w’as plenty of bread and butter, tea, and a little jam.
Supper over, they left the table, and Mrs. Simmons sat down to eat her belated and cold dinner alone. When it was fine, the twm eldest boys usually went out for an hour or so, but to-night they played dominoes on the window-ledge. Mr. Simmons dropped into his rocking chair and Margaret brought him his evening newspaper.
“Arfer’s been messing w’iv it agen,” explained Mrs. Simmons from the table. “Is it all torn, ’Erbert?”
The paper wras really in a deplorable condition. “It’s not bad,” he replied, straightening it out as best he could.
“Who d’you fink I saw’ to-day, ’Erbert?”
“That t’ere Mrs. Forester I used to wmrk for in Portman Square. I fought I recognized ’er, so I goes up an’ says ‘ ’ow’-do-yrou-do’ to ’er.”
“ ‘W’y Effel,’ she says; ‘ ’ow’ are you,’ she says. ‘I’m married nowr,’ I says, ‘these firteen years.’ ‘ ’Appy?’ she says. ‘Very ’appy,’ I says; T got six children an’ a good ’usband.’ She didn’t ’arf seem surprised like. Kept looking at me ’at an’ me fur stole all the time Continued on page 52
Continued from page 17
‘Six children,’ she says; T couldn’t he bovvered wiv one of ’em.” Mrs. Simmons was silent a moment. “Them sort never ’ave any, anyway.”
Her husband rustled his paper.
“Yes, Mrs. Forester! She got a bit attish now. But the clothes she wore! Some ’ave all, don’t they?”
MR. SIMMONS didn’t reply. Margaret had climbed up into his lap and was snuggling her face close to his breast in an effort to hide fresh tears. The mwspaper was dropped, instantly. “Why, Margaret? Tears? Come now, tell your farver what it’s all about?” Willie stood by in an attitude of knowing expectancy. Mother was absorbed in her reflections.
“It ... it was on my way from s-school,” sobbed Margaret, as a pre’udr Willie interjected: “I was wiv ’or, farver, and I didn’t ’ear it drop or nufflnk.”
“Didn’t hear what drop?”
A silence, save for choked little sobs. “I t-tied it up in me nankerchief and 1 opt it in me dress pocket, and—and w ien I went to 1-look for it me nankercmef an’ all was go Her pent-up
tears came now, in a d.-Iuge.
Then, suddenly, Mr. Simmons knew. “We was going to buy sweets wiv it to-morrow afternoon,” Willie said by way of explanation. “An she was going to give me a ha’penny of t; wasn't you, Margaret?” He looked up at his father. “She wouldn’t tell muvver she lost it.” Mrs. Simmons stopped in the act f slicing herself a piece of bread. “Wot’s the matter wiv ’er, ’Erbert? She’s been crying ever since she come ’ome from school.”
“Poor little girl. She’s lost her penny.” “Wot penny?”
It was an embarrassing question for Mr. Simmons to answer, hut the cat was out of the hag now. “I gave ’er a penny last Wednesday,” he confessed, half-
ashamed. As a matter of fact he had risen early that morning and, being a fine day, he had walked all the way to Wapping Old Stairs. The penny so saved had been secretly given to Margaret at night.
Mrs. Simmons, in a distressed voice, said: “W’en I fink of your pore ole feet, ’Erbert, it fair breaks me ’eart, it does.” “They’re much better now, Effel.” “Gawd knows, you’d go naked for ’em, an’ so would I. But there’s a limit to everyfink. I bought Margaret some sweets last Saturday.”
“She’s been so ill. Effel. ...”
HIS wife sighed and gave up further remonstrance in despair. Margaret’s grief was profoundly touching. Mr. Simmons recalled her inarticulate joy when, on Wednesday, he surprised her with the penny, roguishly hinting that it be kept from mother. And now, poor mite, while saving it for Saturday afternoon, she had lost it. He pressed the sobracked, little body to him and kissed the yellow curls. Slowly, fearfully, impelled by some great fatherly impulse, his fingers crept to his waistcoat pocket and closed on the edge of one of the pennies he had a few minutes ago transferred there. Glancing up guiltily, he saw his wife watching him with her soft, brown eyes. Mr. Simmons grinned foolishly.
“Now ’Erbert, dear,” came her almost agonized request, “don’t you do it.”
“Of course not, Effel; of course not.” He pulled away his hand as though it had beenjburnt, and dried Margaret’s tearswith her little handkerchief. “Come, dear, be a brave little rabbit and don’t cry any more. To-morrow afternoon we’ll go and look for that naughty penny. It’s sure to be hiding somewhere.” Mr. Simmons had other schemes up his sleeve which he kept to himself. During her late illness he had spent not a few anxious hours. He thought he loved her best of all, though he admired Harry’s manliness and stood in open respect of Fred’s learning.
Gradually the sobs cooled down and subsided, the little red eyes closed in sleep, and the last tear fell from lashes to flushed cheek. He wiped it gently away. Mother was removing the things from the table and taking them into the kitchen. The boys were busy with their games and lessons. Mr. Simmons’ instincts became uncontrollable. His itching fingers once more fumbled at his waistcoat pocket and this time they emerged holding a penny. It was quickly and dexterously wrapped in a little, damp handkerchief, tied in a knot, and stuffed into a small dress pocket. A moment later, on an acquiescent nod from mother, he rose and carried his only daughter out of the room. After a while he returned, softly closed the bedroom door behind him, resumed his rocking chair, sighed, picked up his evening newspaper and read about the doings of the great outside world.
A knock on the front door startled him. Mrs. Simmons answered it, and a voice he knew but couldn’t recognize said: “Excuse me, missus, but does Mr. ’Erbert Simmons live ’ere?”
“Yes. Come in.”
A big, red-faced, thick-set man entered. Mr. Simmons went to the hall to meet him. He remembered him instantly, despite his civilian clothes.
’Allo ’Erb! Last time I saw you was in the bloomin’ trenches.”
“Well, I’ll be blowed!” said Mr. Simmons, pleased, though taken off his feet. “Effel, this is Sergeant-Major Johnson. We’ve often spoken of you, major.”
Mrs. Simmons first wiped her hand on her apron. “I fought you was a military man,” she said.
THE sergeant-major puffed out his chest. “Easy to tell ’em, missus,” he replied, smiling arrogantly. “That’s wot the army does for you. Now then ’Erb! Straighten up a bit'for your missus, and show ’er wot’s wot. The ole battalion.” Mr. Simmons smiled and straightened his back. “Take off your fings, major. .Come in; come in.”
The soldier did so “Aye! I can do wiv a bit of a rest. Blim’me if I ain’t searched the w’ole 0’ Lunnon for you. Straight, I ’ave! ’Ouse to ’ouse; all over the shop; every plaice you’ve been living. An’ wot a day! Lor’ love a duck!” He shivered, noticeably.
Mr. Simmons was forced to take the hint. “Will you ’ave a drop 0’ some fink, major? A little brandy?”
“Will I? Wot a question!”
Mrs. Simmons went to the sideboard and produced a bottle and two wineglasses, her husband watching her. “Get one for yourself, Effel.”
“I don't feel like it just now, ’Erbert.” Sergeant-Major Johnson, his bowler hat pinned carefully between his heavy boots on the floor, his hands resting, palm-downward, on his knees, regarded Mr. Simmons with the old ferocious eye. “ ’Erb!” he commenced, “I’ve got a bit o’ news for you. I calls it a lucky bit o’ news, an’ I wish I was telling it to meself instead o’ to you, cocky.”
Mrs. Simmons, bringing the drinks on a little tray, set them down within reach on the table. “Well,” said the sergeantmajor, lifting his glass, “ ’ere’s your ’ealth, missus—an’ yours, ’Erb. Good luck to the pair of you.” He drank. “An’ believe me, as the Yankees say, the luck’s right under your nose, ’Erb.”
Mr. and Mrs. Simmons’ joint heart beat a shade quicker.
“You remember the ole colonel, don’t you? Colonel Talbot?”
“Sir Frederick, now,” supplemented Mr. Simmons.
“ ’E is! An’ a braver an’ better officer never went to France. An’ that generous! I knew the inside ropes, an’ I can tell you ’e fair ’eld the ole battalion together. But that’s another story. Yes, ’e’s now Sir Frederick an’ a member o’ the ’Ouse o’ Commons. Often comes up to the barracks, ’e does. Then it’s drinks round for everyone, an’ ’arf a erahn ’ere an’ five bob there. There ain’t one of us as wouldn’t go on our knees to ’im an’ lick ’is boots—same as it was in France.” The sergeant-major paused and took another swallow of brandy. “That’s as good a brandy as ever I tasted, missus,” he said. Mrs. Simmons smiled wanly, glancing at the three-quarter empty bottle which had performed its part nobly for almost a year. “Well,” continued the soldier, wiping his blue lips with the back of his hand, “up ’e comes yesterday, wiv a friend of ’is. A man you’ve ’eard of, I’ll bet.” He paused in order to pronounce this name dramatically. “Sir William Horpen, the painter! ’Eard of ’im?”
Mr. Simmons shook his head; his wife didn’t commit herself. The sergeantmajor, who, himself, had not heard of the great artist until yesterday, appeared scandalized. “Wot! never ’eard of Horpen? Well, strike me pink!”
“I’ve heard of him,” said a voice from the window. “I’ve seen some of his painting in the Grafton Galleries.”
“ ’Ush up, Freddy.”
^ERGEANT-MAJOR JOHNSON inspected the three boys dubiously, then scratched his head. “Wot I’ve got to tell you, ’Erb, is a matter of hextreme importance. See? It’s got to be kept quiet. There’s only three of us, not counting you and the missus—” he looked at her—“got to tell ’er, naturally —as knows anyfink abart. it. It's a secret!”
Much puzzled, his nerves a little shaky, Mr. Simmons regarded his sons at the distance. Then he looked up at the clock and noted the hour. “It’s time for Willie to go to bed, anyway. Eh, muvver! An' Harry!—suppose you an’ Fred do your lessons in the kitchen for a w'ile. Me an' Sergeant-Major Johnson’s got somefink to say.”
They obeyed without a word. Mrs. Simmons also rose. “Would you like me to go, too, ’Erbert?” she inquired, submissively.
“No, no, Effel! You stay ’ere.” It was like an appeal for help. Mrs. Simmons sat down again, and respective doors closed on the departed boys.
The sergeant-major leaned nearer. “Got your ole tunic, tin ’at, gas-mask, ’Erb?” he hinted in exasperating procrastinations
Mr. Simmons nodded.
“It’s locked up in that t’ere wooden chest, ’Erbert.”
“Good! You’ll need ’em.” He grinned knowingly, then said in a lowered tone: “The colonel—Sir Frederick, as is— wants to present to the ’Ouse o’ Commons a painting of the Unknown Soldier, done by this ’ere Sir William Horpen. Up they comes to the barracks yesterday and hexamines the photygraf of the ole battalion that was took on Armistice Day over in Y pres. Sir William Horpen, ’e gets out a little microscope 'e ’as in ’is pocket an’ looks at every bloomin’ fice for \yell, over’n hour. ‘That’s the man 1 wants,’ ’e says.” The non-commissioned
officer flipped Mr. Simmons on the knee with the back of his hand, then drew back. “You, ’Erb!”
“The colonel turns to me. ‘SergeantMajor,’ ’e says, ‘w’o’s that man?’ I finks a minute. ‘Private ’Erbert Simmons,’ I tells ’im, right away. ‘Find w’ere ’e is,’ says the colonel, ‘an’ report to me!’ ” Sergeant-Major Johnson sat up, closed his thumb about his wine glass, and cleared his throat. “So ’ere I am!” “Yes, but—but—”
MRS. SIMMONS’ fingers were restless; she kept picking at her apron. “Wot do they want ’im for?” she asked, faintly.
“Wot do they want ’im for?” The question sounded inane. “Wot do you fink? To be the bloomin’ ’Ome Sekertery or somefink? Not this time, missus.” He glared at Mr. Simmons. “W’y, to pose for the picture, o’ course; to pose as the Unknown Soldier.”
Husband and wife breathed easier. “Oh! is that it?” she said.
“Is that all?” added Mr. Simmons, visibly relieved.
“All?” roared the soldier. “Wot more do you want? All? Gawd’s truth! I wish I’d been picked for the honor, me lad, I can tell you. Fink of your picture ’anging in the ’Ouse o’ Commons for ever and ever—long after all of us is pushing up the daisies. W’y, you’re a bloomin’ ’ero if ever there was one. Don’t that make you proud, missus?” “It is wonderful,” agreed Mrs. Simmons.
“Wonderful! I should say it was. ‘Just the man I wants,’ says Sir William.” The sergeant-major beamed and threw back his head. “Now then, me lad, let’s see you smile. Give us your fin, an’ say your glad.”
But Mr. Simmons appeared hesitant. “You mean they—they want me to go an’ pose for ’em in me uniform?”
“That’s fitting the nail right on the ’ead!”
“I’ve me work, major. I’ve the missus and six of ’em depending on me. Been wiv the River Horne Company at Wapping Old Stairs for over four year. I couldn’t let nuffink interfere like wiv me work, could I Effel?”
Sergeant - Major Johnson hurriedly drained his glass, as though it needed the addition of that stimulant to strengthen his resolve. “Now, loo)c ’ere, ’Erb; you ain’t happreciating this honor in the right spirit, that’s wot’s the matter. Don’t you see wot it means?”
“I see what it means, all right. It means losing me job, major.”
In a voice that quivered, Mrs. Simmons said: “Don’t you do it, ’Erbert;
don’t you do it. . .
“Wot!” bellowed the soldier. “Refuse a’ honor like this ’ere? An’ me tramping all day in the rain to find ’im?” He drew himself up in derision. “Two o’ the greatest men in Lunnon wants you to represent the Unknown Soldier.” He pressed this home, with a tense, pointing finger. “You! ’Erbert Simmons! I’m tilling you straight that’s a’ honor that comes only once. You ain’t a-doing this for me, cocky. You ain’t a-doing it for the colonel. You ain’t a-doing it even for the ’Ouse o’ Commons.” Startling them, he sprang to his feet and stood rigidly at the attention. “You’re a-doing it for England! That’s wot you’re a-doing it for. England!”
MR. SIMMONS, agitated and thrilled, rose slowly and before his late drill-sergeant his arms dropped automatically to his sides.
“Now then, let’s ’ere you say it? Go on. Say you can’t do it now?” was the taunt.
Mr. Simmons couldn’t say it. “If that’s ’ow it is—” he began.
“Can’t you see it is? Wot’ll the picture mean but England? Wot are you supposed to represent, but England?”
“I’ll do it.”
“ ’A course, you’ll do it.” SergeantMajor Johnson sat down again. “I’ll mention your work to the colonel,” he conceded patronizingly. “You’ll be seeing ’im yourself, anyway. They wants you to start on Monday. It’ll only take a month or so; a couple o’ hours in the mornings and afternoons like; I’ve the address in me pocket ’ere. But I ’opes you understand you can’t say nuffink to ’em down w’ere you works. I’ll hexplain that in a minute. Any’ow wiv the ’elp cf the ole colonel, getting a
new job’ll be like picking gooseberries off a tree.”
“ ’Erbert!” begged Mrs. Simmons; “don’t you do it.”
“W’y not, missus? There’ll be a 'undred quid in it for ’im, besides the honor an’ glory.”
“A hundred poun’s!” repeated Mr. Simmons.
“Fifty, at least.”
There was a silence. Mrs. Simmons’ mouth worked funnily, then, with a stifled cry she buried her face in her apron.
“I.... I... . Fill up your glass, major,” invited Mr. Simmons, hoarsely.
“Ta.” The clock on the mantelpiece ticked noisily. “Now ’Erb, there’s one fing more. It’s got to be kept under your ’at, don’t forget. There’s only five of us in the know.” The sergeant-major enumerated them on his fingers. “The colonel, this ’ere Horpen, meself, you an’ the missus. Not another soul, mind! That’s w’y you can’t hexplain matters to your boss, down at your job. The w’ole of England, and—well, if it comes to that, the w’ole world—must never know.”
Mr. Simmons blinked.
“It’s the Unknown Soldier, see? an’ that means Mr. Bloomin’ Nobody is a-going to pose for it. In other words, cocky, you’ll be representing the greatest ’ero in the land all right, but no one’s got to know it. Savvy?”
“You’ve got to do more than see, me lad. Let’s ’ave your oath.”
“An’ ’ow abart you, missus?”
MRS. SIMMONS removed the apron from her face and looked up, vacantly. Her husband explained the situation, and she nodded her agreement.
“That’s the promise of the wife of a soldier, missus—an’ you know wot that means, don’t you?”
Mrs. Simmons didn’t know, but she nodded again. Sergeant-Major Johnson picked up his hat. “ ’Erb,” he said, “you remind me of the boy wot didn’t know a plum w’en it was offered to ’im—not even w’en they crams it dahn ’is froat. Oh! ’ere’s the address!” He produced an envelope from his breast pocket and laid it on the table. “Sir William marked it down hisself, see? Be there by ten o’clock on Monday morning.” Looking at his watch, he whistled, and walked to the door. “Blim’me! is it as late as all that? It’ll be midnight afore I gets ’ome. See if it’s still raining, ’Erb?” he asked, struggling into his mackintosh coat.
Mr. Simmons opened the front door. “Yes,” he said, thinking of his long walk in the morning. “ ’Ope it clears by tomorrow.”
“Going to see Chelsea play Liverpool?” “N-no.”
“Well, good-night, missus. So-long, ’Erb.”
Returning to the room, Mr. Simmons sank into his rocking chair and sat very still. Mrs. Simmons put away the brandy, emptied what few drops were left from one glass into the other, drank it, and went into the kitchen.
“What was it, mother?” asked Fred, at once.
“Nuffink much, dear,” was her listless reply. “Just an’ ol’ friend of your farver’s. That’s all.” She poured hot water into a large tin pan in which an assortment of cups, dishes, and table utensils were indiscriminately piled, and commenced her nightly duties. “Don’t worry your farver to-night, will you,” she told them in a whisper. “ ’E’s fair tired.”
Bending over her dishes, she looked weary and old. “Muvver,” said Harry, suddenly conscious of his great love for her, “you go and sit down, wiv favver. Fred an’ me’ll do the dishes.”
“You don’t wash ’em clean,” was her smiling excuse. “No; you and Freddy trot off to bed. It’s late, see?”
THEY kissed her good-night and went in to their father in the next room. Mr. Simmons perked up a little when he saw them coming, and received two good-night kisses on his shrivelled cheek. Fred remained behind a moment.
“If you want to go to the Grafton Galleries, father, I’d like to go with you. Perhaps to-morrow afternoon? Sir William Orpen has some paintings of the war that are very wonderful. He’s one of the best portrait painters in the world. He only paints great men—and they
pay him enormous sums of money.” “Do they?”
“Oh, yes. He wouldn’t paint anyone for less than a thousand pounds More, I think.”
"Well—we’ll see. I’ve a few fings to do to-morrow. Good-night, me lad.” “Good-night, father dear.”
A little later, Mr. Simmons joined his wife in the kitchen. “If I lost me job, Effel, it would be terrible, wouldn’t it?” She didn’t reply.
“But as the major says, Sir Frederick is sure to look after me, seeing as ’ow I’m doing this for ’im. Eh? Course, a hundred poun’s is a hundred poun’s. Even fifty’d be a Godsend. Wouldn’t it? Freddy could ’ave his chance wiv all that, and—and you could get that winter coat, Effel; that one you liked in the shop, last month. But keeping me job an’ all seems too good to be true.”
As was his nightly custom, he took off his coat and began to roll up his sleeves. “You know, Effel, when the major hrst started—I fought I’d come into a bit of luck or somefink. Didn’t you?”
“Now, ’Erbert, get into your bed, there’s a dear,” she pleaded. “I’ll come an’ rub your chest wiv the ointment in a minute. Then I got a bit of sewing to do on ’Arrv’s football knickers.”
“What! an’ let you do all them fings alone, Effel. Not me!” Mr. Simmons seized a dish-cloth and took up his stand before a pile of washed plates. As he wiped them, he drifted into a reverie. He saw a painting of himself hanging in a heavy gilt frame in the House of Commons, and thousands of people in a long line coming to look at it. A burly policeman, in front of the picture, moved them on. He, Herbert Simmons was also in the line. He hoped some one would suddenly recognize him, associate him with the famous painting, and that they would ultimately carry him on their shoulders as they would carry a national hero. But he remained totally unnoticed, even by the burly policeman ...
“Wot was it ’e called you?” asked Mrs. Simmons, quietly.
“Wot’s-’is-name? You know?”
“The major?” Mr. Simmons tried to smile, but his heart failed him. “Mr. Bloomin’ Nobody!” he said, slowly.
Mrs. Simmons let the dish she was washing fall back with a plop, into the water. Coming over to him, she put her red, wet hands and arms around his neck.
“Don’t you believe ’im, ’Erbert,” she said, her brown eyes glistening. “You’re Mr. Bloomin’ Everyfink to me.”
And she kissed him.