The Shame of It


The Shame of It


The Shame of It


To the sensitive is ridicule more to be feared, than contemptt Could a man be placed in such a position that he would rather sacrifice honor than to suffer humiliation in the eyes of friendst Alan Sullivan thinks so and proceeds to prove it by developing just such a situation. Head this story through—to the last line—and you will agree that it is possible.

WE were all sorry when Stewart lost his money. He was one of those fellows with whom money

had never made any difference, though he had more than any of us except Mason. And it was Mason who told me that Stewart had come a cropper in South Africans. I remember very well that

we were talking about it at the club, when Stewart came in, and, because we stopped so suddenly, he walked down to us and sat down with a queer smile on his face and pushed the bell.

We both wanted to push it first, having a queer idea that the time had come when Stewart ought not to pay for our

drinks. We remembered that afterwards. Anyway, he was very frank about it all, and was just going up to see the secretary about his resignation. Mason and I did our best, telling him that he was such a clever devil that he could get along very comfortably and every man in the club would want to put something in his way.

But Stewart just looked at his glass. “Its awfully decent of you chaps to talk like this,” he said. “But as a matter of fact you can’t do anything for me because I can’t do anything myself. I’m a fool at figures, and a perfect duffer at business. You see everything has always been done for me. So I’m just going to drop quietly out, and in a week or two I won’t be missed at all.”

We expostulated at this, but he was quite firm. He had a quiet decision about him that made us think what a good man he would be at something if he had not felt too old to begin.

Of course we couldn’v. help. Stewart would have thrown money in our faces. Mason got him a billet with a man he

knew in the city; but after a few weeks Mason’s friend told him that Stewart’s work was impossible, and he hadn’t courage enough to let him go, he was such a decent chap. Mason laughed and arranged that some clerk should work overtime and straighten the books out every night Then Stewart found it out and he came to Mason white with rage, and of course, chucked the job at once.

For the next year we saw him occasionally. He never passed the club, but we used to meet him suddenly going round corners. Sometimes he pretended not to see us. And all the time he was getting leaner and shabbier. I heard afterwards that he had pawned most of his clothes and paid up every cent he owed, which was not much, but a stiff thing for a ruined man. His faced used to haunt me, especially in winter—thin, with a delicate sensitive mouth, pointed chin, large, soft grey eyes, hollow cheeks and small ears that laid close to his head ; always clean shaven, he began to look like an ascetic monk. His clothes commenced to show the seams and were worn threadbare, but I never saw them dirty or untidy.

I suppose it’s awfully easy to lose heart when one has been down on one’s luck for some time. Of course Stewart had no one dependent on him or we could have acted. But being alone he seemed to live, as it were, in isolation, and, so far as we could tell, get a grim sort of satisfaction from sticking it out alone.

Mason and I worried over it. You see there was a part of Stewart we couldn’t get at, and that was his pride. If he had not been so infernally well-born he might not have been so stiff-necked, but his attitude was such that it made us feel we were offering alms to the whole aristocracy.

“You know,” said Mason one night when we sat in the club windows and watched an occasional thin black figure slouching down Piccadilly. “I often wonder what would happen to most of us if we came croppers. It’s all very well to sit here and say we would do so and so and feel jolly confident about it, but could we do it if we had to? I believe that the very necessity of it weakens a man’s power. He is appalled at the thought of the consequences of failure.”

I thought for a while. That was a new way of putting it. I had read a good deal of what men accomplish under terrific strain and load, and I said so.

“Yes, that’s all right as far as it goes, but these were mostly men of genius. Huxley or some clever Johnny said that genius was the spontaneous variation of the race. That will explain it because genius can accomplish anything. But there’s no variation about you or me— England is full of us, decent enough fellows as we go—but, Good Lord, we don’t produce anything. We’re consumers.” He threw back his head and squirted up a long straight column of smoke, then stared at it. “As a matter of fact there are too many of us.”

Mason seemed wound up so I let him go. “What do you mean?”

“I mean this. We’re too damn good. There are enough aristocrats in England

to provide every country in the world with a compete nobility if it hadn’t one already. But have we anything else? Look at Stewart! A better fellow never lived, but there isn’t a pitman in Yorkshire who isn’t more of an asset to the country than Stewart is—or than you or 1 would be under the same conditions.”

That was the way with Mason. He was full of ripping ideas, and, always, just as we expected him to try some of them out, he’d go off shooting to Greenland or fishing to Norway, and when he came back he’d have a totally new set that would carry him over to the next expedition. I think he used to like calling himself a good-for-nothing unproductive slacker.

It was about a month after that talk, when we were dining in a little out-ofthe-way place, that we next saw Stewart. Mason kicked me when the waiter came up. One doesn’t always look at a waiter’s face, but then I saw it was Stewart. He turned very white. His duty was to wait on that table. He had not recognized us till he came up, and then, of course, he could not refuse without losing his place. It made me rather sick and I was just going to say something when Mason kicked me again. Of course the only thing was to see it through. If we had gone out he would have got into trouble.

I had not thought of that—and there wasn’t another empty table.

It was a ghastly meal—we both nearly choked. Stewart stuck it out like a hero and stood behind us with a napkin over his arm. In my time I had seen many men die many deaths, but that beat them all. We could not talk, but just rammed food down our throats. We sent Stewart off for something and then shoved a five-pound note under a plate. When he came back we settled up, the exact amount—I swallowed a lump in my throat at the way he said “Thank you.” That was because we had not offered him a tip. But in the morning Mason opened an envelope addressed to him at the club and found the five-pound note inside.

The next time, curiously enough, we met Stewart was also at dinner, but then he sat between Mason and me. It all came about through Paterson. Paterson was one of our fellows who had been in Australia for years and came back with a big black beard—and rolling in money. He was telling us at the club about his sheep—I think he had four hundred thousand of them—a few nights later when he looked around and said suddenly, “Where’s old Stewart?”

He was awfully sorry, and, of course, wanted to do something at once. Then Mason told him about the five-pound note.

Paterson didn’t say anything for a while, then he blurted, “I think you fellows have made a hell of a mess of it. What Stewart wants is self-respect. Don’t you see! He thinks that just because he’s lost his money he has changed in our eyes—not fit for us—and all that. It’s pride gone crazy, that’s all. Now what we’ve got to do is to stiffen up his self-respect, and by George I know how to do it! I’m going to give a dinner and ask him!”

“He won’t come,” said Mason.

Paterson laughed. “I’ll bet you fifty pounds—proceeds to be invested for Stewart in either case.”

Mason took him, only he was puzzled how Stewart could ever be got to take the proceeds.

Now, whether it was just a long shot of Paterson’s or whether fellows out in the colonies get a bigger view and better range of things—I don’t know, but the strange part of it is that that invitation found Stewart at his last known address, and Stewart answered that he would come. It was the old stereotyped thing— Mr. Paterson requests the pleasure of

-, and Mr. Stewart accepts with

pleasure. It gave us all a queer feeling. We were to sit with him and talk and smoke and spin yarns, just as if nothing had ever happened. I had my doubts, but Paterson somehow gave me confidence that it would go off all right.

It was a curious dinner. Most of us were there when Stewart came in. He did it awfully well—rather pale, but as proud as Potiphar. His clothes were threadbare and I could see places where he had worn them through with cleaning. But after a while things went very smoothly. We talked hunting and shooting, and, of course, no one mentioned the club. Paterson yarned away about his place up-country in Australia, and I could see Stewrrt’s eyes fill up with a sort of helpless wonder at his host’s success. One thing we all avoided and that was any mention of women. We all felt that among men everything was all right, but once we introduced the women it would make it damnably hard for Stewart.

I think I never saw a man eat like he did. He didn’t chew things, but just bolted them whole. He was so thin that the skin seemed stretched tight, straight from cheek bone to chin, and his collar was away big for him. I don’t want you to think that he guzzled—he didn’t—one hardly knew that he was eating till his plate was bare. He seemed physically comforted long before dessert came, and had patches of color in his face, and his eyes were as if someone had lit a lamp inside them. I know that as time went on we began to feel it more and more difficult to avoid subjects that might be hard on Stewart: and then somehow we began to talk about precious stones. Everyone had stories of them. Suddenly Mason leaned forward and asked to see the emerald Paterson wore on his left hand. It was a cabochon—a beautiful thing and must have been worth a lot of money.

Paterson slipped it off, and handed it to him. I was a little surprised at his wearing jewelry, but somehow it didn’t seem so out of the way in a man who had knocked about as much as he had. His black hair and eyes and everything about him was a little unusual.

Mason admired the ring and sent it on round the table. There were twelve of us altogether. Mason was on Paterson’s right and Stewart on his left. I was next Stewart.

The ring reached me after a few minutes. It was set in platinum and though me stone must have been very firmly

placed, it looked as if one could pry it out quite easily. Then I laid it on the table beside Stewart.

Now, I don’t quite remember what happened next, but in a little while Paterson laughed, “Which of you fellows has succumbed to my ring?”

The man on my left said, “Not guilty,” and looked at me. I said the same thing and looked at Stewart.

I thought at the time it was the food and wine that made Stewart so red, but he shook his head. “Haven’t got it.” Paterson laughed more than ever. “Come on you chaps. This is a poor welcome to a wanderer from the antipodes.” Someone said something about spoiling the Egyptians; then we grew rather merry, and just as we were starting off to the Palace, Paterson said again, “Whoever has that ring please cough it up.” I think he was getting vexed.

At that we looked at each other. The thing had gone rather too far. Paterson saw we were not joking and really did not have his ring. I watched Stewart and would have sworn he was telling the truth just like the rest of us. Paterson evidently was up a tree. You see the only man there who could have had any reason for taking it was Stewart.

It was getting infernally awkward, when Mason said,

“Look here Paterson, this thing must be cleared up. Now, this instant.”

Paterson nodded.

“Now I want you to search me. I’ll search the man on my right, and so on, all round.

Everything found goes on the table.

There’s a nigger in the fence somewhere.”

Everyone agreed to that except Stewart, who got ghastly white, and said nothing. I remember staring at him and saying to myself, “He hasn’t got it. He hasn’t.” And yet I knew I had laid that ring beside Stewart’s plate.

The searching would have been funny if it had not been so horribly serious. Man after man stood up and had his pockets emptied. I know there were nine gold watches, match boxes, cigarette and sovereign cases, and a lot of money. The table looked as if a highwayman had gone through us. Paterson took it awfully well. He tried to laugh and joke and looked at the ceiling most of the time. Most of us were thinking about Stewart and what a mistake this whole affair had

The searching took a little while and after I had been cleaned out I turned to Stewart. Now mind you, all this time

he had not said a word, but got whiter and whiter. Then when it came to his turn he sat still and said stiffly, “Gentlemen, I decline to be searched. I have not the ring.”

We could have heard a pin drop. Every man looked at the little heap of things in front of him and for a moment there was a silence that none of us wanted to break. I was sorry for Stewart, but even sorrier for Paterson, who always had very strong ideas of honor, and I know he had wanted to take Stewart with him to Australia.

Then as if we had all thought of it at once, every man got up and stood there like a graven image. “Slip it to me for God’s sake,” I whispered under my breath to Stewart. “I’ll find it under the table.”

I know he heard, because his lip twitched, but he just stood there and stared at the wall. His mouth was pressed tight, his chin stuck out, and there was not a shred of color in his face.

Then just as I wanted to shout and break this horrible spell, Paterson went (o the door. I think he was suffering as much as Stewart. He opened it and looking at Stewart, said in a queer cracked voice. “I’m sorry, very, very sorry.”

Stewart turned just like an automaton His eyes were as hard as steel and never in my life have I seen a man look so proud. He stopped just as he reached the door, and, would you believe it, bowed to Paterson very formally, then to the rest. Something galvanized us all and we bowed back. Then he vanished and

left us with that extraordinary picture in our minds—his cadaverous, threadbare, solitary figure bowing at the door and thç eleven of us—standing round a table covered with gold watches and things shining in the candle light—and bowing stiffly back to a self-confessed thief.

We didn’t go to the Palace but sat talking for a long time. I think that what we felt most was that Stewart should have kept this rotten thing for Paterson, after we had wanted him to let us help for so long. Paterson said very little. He didn’t mind the loss of the ring, but I know from what he had said about some of the men he had met in Australia, that he had a tremendous idea of good form. As he put it—if Stewart had broken a window and helped himself, it would have been quite all right; but to wait till he was one of ourselves again —if only for an evening— was a bit too thick. You see the very thing that Paterson wanted to reach — his self-respect — had gone to pieces, and that hit us pretty hard. “Nothing o f this outside,” said Paterson, and we aH agreed.

Two days later when I was sitting in the smoking room. Mason came up, touched my shoulder, and jerked his head. I followed him till we saw Paterson in a corner. In front of him was a table and on the table an open letter. His face looked queer and he handed the letter to me. I read it and gasped. Then Paterson held out his hand — the ring was on it.

“I don’t know what to do,” he said brokenly. “The damned thing was in the carpet. It evidently fell off the table at Stewart’s place and the vacuum cleaner pulled it out next day. You remember the rug was very thick. I went at once to try and find him, but he’s cleared out He kept in his room that night, and then vanished. They have not seen him since. He—” Paterson hesitated, “He didn’t come in next night.”

Occasionally men see what idiots they have made of themselves. We saw it then. Paterson felt worst of all. We had visions of poor Stewart floating down past Tilbury or being fished out of the Serpentine. I don’t think there was one of us who would not have given half he had to undo that evening. We put advertisements in every paper—in such a way that he would understand, but no one else could—and Paterson had de-

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The Shame of It

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tectives going through London with a fine-tooth comb. After two or three weeks we gave it up. Either Stewart was dead, or else he knew and was too hurt to come to us, or else he had pulled out altogether. The whole affair made a great difference to us. I remember particularly how Mason put it.

“The way I see it,” he said, “is that .ve’ve fallen down in the only thing we’re supposed to be any good at. We were born and bred in circles that should know how to handle just such an affair as this one of Stewart’s, and we made a ghastly mess of it. Of course he didn’t want to be searched. I don’t believe there was any lining in his clothes or that the poor devil had any under-things on. The odds were all against him, but he relied on something finer than odds and appearances and trusted us to meet him on that ground—honor. We simply couldn’t do it. We went all to pieces, and Stewart was the only gentleman in the room. We had his word, that was all we had any right to and it should have been enough.”

Paterson did a very decent thing. He put Stewart up for membership again. Mason and I seconded him, and as Mason was on the committee it went through very quickly and Paterson paid the fees with the fifty pounds he won. Speaking of it afterwards, Paterson said he felt perfectly sure Stewart would turn up again, because the man who did what he had done wasn’t the sort who was easily knocked out. Then he started back to Australia.

The next two years slipped by. Mason and I went up to Spitzbergen, and then had a lot of shooting west of Nairobi. We reached England just before Christmas and the first man we found at the club was Paterson, looking blacker and browner and richer than ever. You know that queer feeling of presentiment that one sometimes gets—well, we all had it.

I half expected to meet Stewart round a corner. Mason and Paterson felt the same way.

“Heard nothing of him?” said Paterson.

I shook my head, “No, but—” Then we all stared. Stewart himself was coming up the steps of the club. He had filled out—was dressed like the rest of us, and carried his head as high as ever. He walked very deliberately and looked much younger.

We gaped at each other. Presently he came into the smoking room. I shall never forget the look in his eyes as we got up and faced him. There was no reproach, but it was the deepest look I have ever seen in a human face. He held out his hand, and I know that we all shook it for a long time and kept pumping it up and down, till Paterson blew up and .--wore horribly and that broke the tension. Then some other men came in and in five minutes we had all gone back five ' years and started over again.

Stewart told us that he had stoked his j way out to Canada and struck at Cobalt, ;

where he was working as a navvy on a Government railway. It appears the country was full of silver, but no one thought there was anything there but big timber and rabbits, till the railway contractors began to blow their way through solid rock. He pegged out one of the best claims and had just sold it for a pot of money, more than he lost in Kaffirs.

It all sounded like a fairy tale, but there sat Stewart, with a new snap in his eyes and a good deal more confidence about him than he ever had before. We learned afterwards that he had run into Pettrick the previous night and, of course, Pettrick had told him all about the ring and our efforts to find him.

After a while he looked at us very queerly and said. “I want you chaps to dine with me to-morrow.”

Mason got very red, but Stewart didn’t seem to notice that and went on— '‘In just the same place as before. I’ve tried to get the same fellows, and only missed two of them. I have particular reasons,” he added, “and hope you’ll

Of course we promised, but with very mixed feelings. We knew Stewart had something up his sleeve, and probably would dig up the past, but we concluded that that was his affair. Anyway, all of us who were in town turned up.

I do believe that Stewart had had a sort of savage satisfaction about that dinner. Everything was exactly the same—food, waiters, everything—except we all moved round one place to the right and that brought Stewart to the head of the table. I caught Mason’s eye several times—we were both wondering what was going to happen, when Stewart cleared his throat and began.

Most of the things he said burned into my brain, and I know they affected the other fellows in the same way. It was an unfolding of the other side of things —what happens to a man who can’t do anything and is down and out. He had been so completely wrecked that when he settled up everything, which he did— absolutely—there was only a few pounds left. He told us how that shrank—to three, two, one—then he got down to shillings and lastly to pence. And all the time he was finding out more things he couldn’t do. As for porter’s work he said there were ten men to every trunk to be moved—men who could carry twice as much as he did, and that though he met lots of decent fellows, they considered that he was not one of their own kidney and stuck pretty well together. Then he got the waiter’s job in the place Mason and I found him in. He chucked that the same night—waiting on us nearly knocked him out.

I don’t want to suggest that Stewart went in for any heroics. On the conirary, he told us all this in a quiet level voice—his eyes thoughtful—and the corners of his lips twitching, sometimes with amusement and again with disgust. But 1 do know that as we stared at him across the candles and fruit and wine, he seemed like a man who spoke through wreaths of cigar smoke of things we had never thought about, and somehow they

leemed to be the price paid for other hings that we demanded and used every lay. Then he came down to the date of ’aterson’s dinner.

“You chaps didn’t know it,” he said rery evenly, “but I saw you all nearly ¡very night for a week. There was a corler across the street I used to get into, ind watch till the blinds were closed. I ould see you laughing and ordering Irinks, and sometimes,”—here his voice Iropped—“I knew you were talking about ne.”

“My God,” said Paterson. “Don’t— ild man—don’t—”

“It’s all right,” Stewart plodded on. ‘I got totally new ideas about a club :rom that corner, and I’ll always have now,”-he added significantly. “When rour invitation came, Paterson, I had not laten for thirty-six hours. I had fourjence left, and twopence of that went for ny answer. I was glad to come. It nade me feel that you chaps realized ;hat, in one way—at any rate—I had not ¡hanged.”

Paterson nodded. His eyes were soft md the rest of us felt—well I can’t tell low we felt. This steady voice seemed ¡errible with truths we had dodged all selfish lives.

“I enjoyed that dinner. It was good to with you again, and everything I ate seemed to fortify me against the hungry morrows I knew I had to face. That vas constantly in my mind—‘What shall l eat to-morrow?’ I don’t suppose you :haps know what real hunger is. Well, it’s as if your stomach began to gnaw it itself. That’s as nearly as I can put it. But I know, and I funked it. Then ¡ame the matter of Paterson’s ring. Have you got it now, Paterson?”

A hand came out It was shaky, and Paterson’s face was working. “Yes, there it is.”

“Well, you know what happened. I thought about it for days and months. You couldn’t have done anything else— and—neither could I. My pockets—” he said with a long, long breath, “My pockets were full of bread.”

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