Illustrating, once again, the Eternal Truth that beside Love, Riches are a Little Thing
ONE read “Lewis and Company” on the brass plate in Jermyn Street. But his name was Timothy Proctor, not Lewis. Very few people knew that. The office, two floors up, was flanked by an untenanted anteroom which received every visitor. On its wall was a bell, with “Please Ring” inscribed, and it
contained a massive mahogany table, four severe leather-seated chairs of unimaginable hardness, three framed lithographic prints of the environs of Melrose Abbey, and a horizontal mirror over the mantel. This was at a height that enabled a visitor to scrutinize his own features. Most of them did so before they rang. The bell was answered by a mask-faced individual of ominous gravity, who entered by another door, and took down on a pad a few notes that gave the applicant’s name, age, address, bank, club, profession or business, amount required, debts and their character, income, prospects and available security. This general information having been noted with an impersonal calm that baffled description, the individual disappeared into some mysterious domain beyond. One did not actually see Lewis and Company unless negotiations reached a certain stage.
The visitor then became busy with the mirror, examining his own face, trying on—so to speak— expression after expression for one that best suited
the moment. He would stand at the window, stare into Jermyn Street, watch the traffic, address to himself opprobrious epithets for getting into such a mess, hazard what sort of a man Lewis was, hope to find something human about him—till, of a sudden, he wheeled round to discover that the suave individual had returned as silently as he went.
Everything depended on the next thirty seconds.
The Automaton might glance at the pad, and say: “We are sorry, but we do not see our way to make the required advance.” If he did, it was a waste of breath to say anything back. No plea of distress, no raking up of further possible security, no desperate exclamation, no surprise, produced any response whatever. There would be a slight movement toward the inner door, and the Robot would disappear. The visitor, in fact, was not shown out, but left out. And there was nothing portable in the anteroom.
If, on the other hand, the Robot made a slight bow, in which there was as much condescension as politeness, it meant that Lewis and Company had decided to consider the matter. He would then open the inner door, and to the visitor would be exposed a large, thickly carpeted office, a large flat desk, and a large heavy-jowled man. This man would lean forward ever so little, indicating a chair immediately opposite. And that would be the beginning of the end.
Few people who saw Proctor thus engaged would have identified him with the law student who used to make love to Mary Chester in a Birmingham park in springtime twenty years previously, and he himself often wondered if it was the same man. In moments of abstraction, he sometimes sat sliding his big, fleshy fingertips back and forth on the glass of the desk, deliberating what difference it might or might not have made in after life if he had played the game. He had not played it. Just when Mary needed him most—when she had established every human claim—he had run away. A long time ago was that. A generation. And he had never married. Not wanting to saddle himself with the thought of having deserted two instead of one, he made no enquiries till years later, when he happened to be in Birmingham. There he learned in a roundabout way that Mary had gone to Canada almost at once. Curious that this should make her seem more alive than ever!
It was through a Russian Jew, naturalized as Lewis, that Timothy drifted into the money-lending business. He used to take out writs for Lewis and appear in court; so very soon it was apparent to him that definite profits accrued to those whose natures prompted them to deal with the weakness rather than the strength of their fellow men. When the Jew died, Timothy slid very comfortably into the Jermyn Street office—and stayed there.
("AN A DAY when spring had invaded London Town, and one could buy a handful of primroses for a few pence, a youngish-oldish-looking man with restless eyes and a sensitive mouth entered the anteroom, pressed the bell, and told the Robot that Mr. Dudgeon would like to see Mr. Lewis. It happened that Timothy was disengaged. He waved the visitor to a seat, and folded his big hands.
“Well, Mr. Dudgeon?” No time was wasted here, even when the primroses were out.
“That letter of yours—I got it.” “Yes.” “I thought I’d better come up and see you at once. I can’t do anything at the moment, but . . “It’s the third of its kind, Mr. Dudgeon.” “Yes—I know—but . . He broke off, searching
Timothy’s face for some avenue of approach. “Mr. Lewis, the next six months will be everything to me.” “Why do you say that?” “This autumn I’ll have enough work done for a show—new work.”
Timothy sent him a blank look. “Show?”
“Yes—pictures. I’ve the promise of a window in Bond Street.”
“How many pictures have you sold in the last year?”
“Only two, but I . . .” “For how much?” “Thirty pounds each.” He hurried on, his voice talking a ragged edge. “I’m doing better work now—much better.” Timothy’s lower lip projected, heavy, fleshy, contemptuous. He pressed his knee against a concealed bell in the desk partition. Everything went by signals in that office. If he had pressed twice, the Robot would have rushed in with a revolver. As it was, Dudgeon’s file appeared, silently, on the desk. Timothy glanced at it, and shook his head.
“Two advances, three hundred in all, on the security of a second mortgage with the contents of the house. Six months
arrears of interest. In January you told me you expected a commission for a portrait. Did you get it?”
Dudgeon made a gesture. “The man died, suddenly.” “Unfortunate—for you. We are left no alternative. Anything else in this connection?”
Dudgeon was stricken dumb. Down in Jermyn Street a barrel organ began to reel out “Home, Sweet Home.” It was a moment just as familiar to Timothy as it was new to his visitor. That fixed expression—that tenseness, as though something buzzed in one’s ears— that almost imperceptible breathing—that slow raising of stunned, unwinking eyes. Every one of them did it, and they always found him ready.
Anything else in this connection! Ten million things jockeyed about in Dudgeon’s brain. No use. This man was armored. If he were not, he wouldn’t be here. But did he actually propose to turn one into the street?
“I’ve complied with your applications,” said Timothy in a blandly even tone, “and accepted your security. You have not lived up to your contract, and the matter must take the usual course. I’m sorry.”
That was the way he always wound up, dismissing and definitive, but this time something in the other man’s expression got under his skin. It had changed, and now reflected an extraordinary blending of pity and contempt. Fear and shock were obliterated, while the pity and contempt seemed to be for Timothy. It did not make him hostile—that never paid—but roused in him an unwonted desire to add a word or two. So he leaned a little forward.
“Mr. Dudgeon, before you came here the first time, you had been to others without success. I happen to know that. When I decided to quote you terms, you were grateful—at least you said so. In fact you jumped at my terms. Is that right?”
“Yes,” said Dudgeon thickly.
“Now, through no fault of mine, the matter has another color. You’ve put yourself in the hole. And what is in your mind is not complimentary to me.”
“Oh, I say!”
Timothy lifted a quieting hand. “You are not in a position to talk. I’ll add that you would not like to be seen with me—you have kept our transaction secret— in fact you feel yourself superior. That is in consequence of my having something you need, which is money. No, you needn’t protest—we know all about it. Sort of thing we’re used to, and it goes with the business. But,” here the voice hardened and deepened, “it makes that business more expensive for our clients. It has, already, with you. Good morning: the other door, please.”
THAT evening Timothy walked home to Bayswater through the Park. The Dudgeon matter being settled, he thought no more of that, but of Mary Chester. Perhaps this was because he passed great glowing blankets of yellow narcissus which she had loved. Inevitably, every spring they made him uncomfortable.
But not weak. By this time he had soaked in a sort of passionless contempt for such humanity as he came in contact with.
It was all so easy. Lack of simple calculations—lack of the ability to curb one’s desires — optimism — generosity — those were the attributes that set in motion the anxious tide that flowed to Jermyn Street, just as regularly as the sun rose over Whitechapel and set behind Hampton Court. Why couldn’t they see for themselves? Sometimes he got a little tired of sitting in the big chair and watching men go to pieces across the desk. He was not born cruel, but the mechanical and natural sequences of his business had to be respected, or soon there wouldn’t be any business.
Dudgeon went back to Kent. At two stops beyond Maidstone he was met by a fair-haired girl of nineteen who took one quick glance at his haggard face. He shook his head. She slipped her arm into his, and they were alone in a deep, hedge-bordered lane before she spoke.
“Dad, dear, don’t look like that: don’t be so unhappy. You didn’t expect anything else. You told me so.” “I know, but . . .’’he took a long unsteady breath, “it’s what we are to do now.” “I’ve got it all worked out. How long have we here?” “A month from today.”
“Then there’s this,” she said, squeezing his arm. “I hiked for miles since you left this morning, and found a tiny place near Wrotham. Such a view—almost better than ours. We can just manage it, and you’ll begin all over again with—with no old stock on hand.” She tried to put this lightly, and nearly succeeded.
“What would I do without you, child?” “There’s one thing,” she went on softly, “that I was never thankful for before— mother—if she had lived.” “No—no!” he stammered, “Don’t . . He broke off with a glance so strange that it frightened her. “Did you lose everything when you lost her?” “Not everything, darling.” They turned through a laurel hedge into a garden where two long, dark beds bordering a flagged walk were sown with myriad shoots of thrusting green. These led to the cottage, whose thatch overhung small, diamond-paned windows as bushy brows overhang bright inquisitive eyes. Around
the house ran a strip of lawn, behind it a covert thickened with the season’s tender increase, and in front dipped the Weald of Kent, partitioned into a dwindling perspective of miniature farms and villages. They could see Lenham, the spire of Harrietsham, the Canterbury highway as it wound up the flank of Charing ridge, and the squat tower of Little Chart church. They could see the smoke over Ashford, and black-beetles of cars that sped along the Dover road. And this they would see for just one month more. “Do all the pictures have to go, Dad?” “Yes—they stipulated that because I was an artist.” “But one—you know—couldn’t we keep that?” “I’ll try and keep it, darling. I might buy it in.” “Do!” she whispered, “because she was all ours, wasn’t she?” Again that strange look. “All ours and all mine, both of you,” he said in a high nervous tone. On a Saturday, two weeks later, Timothy did what was for him a curious thing. He took train from Charing Cross, and got out at the second stop past Maidstone
where he saw pasted up the auction notice of the sale of Whitall Dene, that desirable private residence, and its contents. He nodded, made an enquiry, and, walking slowly, struck into a lane that led up hill. Years since he had walked this far.
In his pocket was the valuator’s report on the Tudor cottage. Such cottages were, he had found, rather the thing, and to buy this one in himself subject to the first mortgage might mean a very pretty turn. But he never bought anything he had not seen.
On top of the rise he halted, mopping his face, and over the hedge saw the thatched roof. At the same time came the sound of a girl’s voice. He got the end of a sentence.
“—what he’s like when not at his business?” Then Dudgeon. “That’s occurred to me more than once. Perhaps quite normal.” “Normal!” ruminated Timothy, and stood very still. “But what takes a man into such a distressing business?” “The perception of other people’s weakness.” “How awful! I’m sorry for him—in spite of everything.” Timothy, needing no explanation, glanced furtively along the lane. He had it to himself. He could not see through the hedge, but fastened his cold eyes on the spire of Harrietsham. Dudgeon was saying something about men like Lewis not needing sympathy. “But, Dad, he must miss so much. What do you suppose he goes home to? Has he any natural emotions? Did he ever have any? Does something happen to them to make people like that?” “If you’d ever seen him, you’d know. He’d walk through that narcissus bed without noticing. I don’t fancy he’s married—one can’t imagine any woman
surrendering to that. I don’t suppose he ever laughs except in satire—you can’t picture a natural laugh coming out of his face. He knows what people think of him, because he told me so. I don’t think his kind ever get very angry—only harder.”
“Will he be here on the fifteenth?” “It’s not likely.” “Then he doesn’t want this place for himself?” "He wants nothing but money.” “How horribly lonely!” Timothy turned with a slow, elephantine motion, and moved down hill. The afternoon sun beat on his broad, black back, and accentuated the greyish mask of his face. He took off his hat, lurching on with the heavy,
plunging step of the man out of training. He felt no resentment: just a vague wonder. How had that girl known? He did not know himself till he heard her speak, and now he wanted to see her. Lonely! He had been lonely since springtime in Birmingham twenty years ago.
X-JE HAD not intended to go down again on the fifteenth, but something took him. Another fine day. The auctioneer had rigged up a platform at the front door. Inside, the contents of every room were labelled, each piece with its lot number. Curtains lay on chairs in folded heaps. These things, human yet not human, seemed to have gathered in clusters, and to be wondering where they were going now. They would only be things till they were absorbed again, and acquired a new set of associations and meanings.
Outside the back door, Timothy encountered Dudgeon and nodded curtly. Dudgeon looked at him but did not speak. The look spoke for him. The girl was not there, so Timothy passed round to the front. Careless feet were trampling the beds, and the dry voice of the auctioneer had begun.
Dudgeon’s property commenced to evaporate. Men appeared at the front dooi carrying the loot of the cottage, planting it on the platform for a naked, almost indecent, moment, till it went back under new ownership. Dudgeon, circling round the edge of the crowd, suffered horribly under this succession of shocks, insults and uprootings. He had not dreamed that things—merely things—could absorb such significance.
Then the pictures. Timothy thought that perhaps he might be interested here, and approached the platform. So did Dudgeon. Mostly water-colors, and nothing notable. Interest slackened. Then the mechanical voice.
“Portrait of a lady. Reserve of five pounds.”
Timothy looked up, and found himself staring at the face of Mary Chester.
It all stopped—the voice—the scattered talk—even the wind. The Weald of Kent faded away, its dissolving panorama replaced by a Birmingham park in springtime, and Timothy’s heart stopped too. He stared, stared, and swung his startled eyes to Dudgeon. Dudgeon looked like a lover who has seen the vision of his beloveU. Things seemed to have stopped for him also. Timothy moved toward him as in a dream, and drew him aside.
“That picture,” he said thickly, “where did you get it?”
“I painted it—my wife—I want it.” "Wife!” stammered Timothy.
“Why not?” said Dudgeon coldly, and watched the auctioneer. The man was in a hurry, and there being no sign of a bid over the reserve, he barked: “Sold to Mr. Dudgeon,” and put the picture aside. Timothy, still paralyzed, knew that he had lost it. He would have given a thousand pounds. He caught at Dudgeon’s arm. “I want that picture at any price. Name it.”
“Not on the market. Why do you want it?”
“My name is not Lewis, but Proctor—Timothy Proctor.” He hesitated, then added chokily, “of Birmingham.”
It came out in a sort of groan, with behind it all the thwarted, twisted hunger of an empty life. The man’s eyes were dead and sunken, the heavy jowl of him flaccid. Jermyn Street a million miles away, and Mary Chester again in his arms. He had just discovered that he had not known how to love anyone else.
Dudgeon drew back. “You—it was you!” “Twenty years ago. There’s been no one since.” The voice, breaking, stammered something about “never have forgotten—always wanted to make up for it.” He had a savage longing to hear more of Mary from I the one man on earth who could tell him. And that girl, who knew he was lonely! His girl—not Dudgeon’s.
“When were you married?” he asked in a hoarse whisper.
“Nearly twenty years ago in Canada.” Then, as though to complete the cycle, Timothy saw the girl herself at the gate, her face pale but full of courage. She took in the scene on the lawn, and only held her head the higher. She stood there, breaking his heart with her semblance to that other Mary, blood of his blood, fruit of his passion, but not for him save as a crown of thorns. Dudgeon, aware of that
devouring gaze, straightened his shoulders.
“Mine:” he said in a harsh tone, “born in wedlock; my wedlock. She doesn’t know.”
As he spoke the girl waved her hand. Coming quickly forward she drew his arm into her own, and took one swift glance at Timothy.
“Please, Dad, come now. You can’t do anything, and we’ll just get the train.”
Dudgeon drew himself up, and bent on Timothy a look at once proud, possessive and confident. Then they walked away. Timothy’s lips were dry. He could not speak. Halfway to the gate the girl glanced back, frowning a little. He could just hear what she said:
“Dad, what a dreadful-looking person. Was that Mr. Lewis?”