"Have you heard about Tommy Chadwick?" one gossip asked another in Bursley.
"He's a tram-conductor now."
This information occasioned surprise, as it was meant to do, the expression on the faces of both gossips indicating a pleasant curiosity as to what Tommy Chadwick would be doing next.
Thomas Chadwick was a "character" in the Five Towns, and of a somewhat unusual sort. "Characters" in the Five Towns are generally either very grim or very jolly, either exceptionally shrewd or exceptionally simple; and they nearly always, in their outward aspect, depart from the conventional. Chadwick was not thus. Aged fifty or so, he was a portly and ceremonious man with an official gait. He had been a policeman in his youth, and he never afterwards ceased to look like a policeman in plain clothes. The authoritative mien of the policeman refused to quit his face. Yet, beneath that mien, few men (of his size) were less capable of exerting authority than Chadwick. He was, at bottom, a weak fellow. He knew it himself, and everybody knew it. He had left the police force because he considered that the strain was beyond his strength. He had the constitution of a she-ass, and the calm, terrific appetite of an elephant; but he maintained that night duty in January was too much for him. He was then twenty-seven, with a wife and two small girls. He abandoned the uniform with dignity. He did everything with dignity. He looked for a situation with dignity, saw his wife and children go hungry with dignity, and even went short himself with dignity. He continually got fatter, waxing on misfortune. And--another curious thing--he could always bring out, when advisable, a shining suit of dark blue broadcloth, a clean collar and a fancy necktie. He was not a consistent dandy, but he could be a dandy when he liked.
Of course, he had no trade. The manual skill of a policeman is useless outside the police force. One cannot sell it in other markets. People said that Chadwick was a fool to leave the police force. He was; but he was a sublime and dignified fool in his idle folly. What he wanted was a position of trust, a position where nothing would be required from him but a display of portliness, majesty and incorruptibility. Such positions are not easy to discover. Employers had no particular objection to portliness, majesty and incorruptibility, but as a rule they demanded something else into the bargain. Chadwick's first situation after his defection from the police was that of night watchman in an earthenware manufactory down by the canal at Shawport. He accepted it regretfully, and he firmly declined to see the irony of fate in forcing such a post on a man who conscientiously objected to night duty. He did not maintain this post long, and his reasons for giving it up were kept a dark secret. Some said that Chadwick's natural tendency to sleep at night had been taken amiss by his master.
Thenceforward he went through transformation after transformation, outvying the legendary chameleon. He was a tobacconist, a park-keeper, a rent collector, a commission agent, a clerk, another clerk, still another clerk, a sweetstuff seller, a fried fish merchant, a coal agent, a book agent, a pawnbroker's assistant, a dog-breeder, a door-keeper, a board-school keeper, a chapel-keeper, a turnstile man at football matches, a coachman, a carter, a warehouseman, and a chucker-out at the Empire Music Hall at Hanbridge. But he was nothing long. The explanations of his changes were invariably vague, unseizable. And his dignity remained unimpaired, together with his broadcloth. He not only had dignity for himself, but enough left over to decorate the calling which he happened for the moment to be practising. He was dignified in the sale of rock-balls, and especially so in encounters with his creditors; and his grandeur when out of a place was a model to all unemployed.
Further, he was ever a pillar and aid of the powers. He worshipped order, particularly the old order, and wealth and correctness. He was ever with the strong against the weak, unless the weak happened to be an ancient institution, in which case he would support it with all the valour of his convictions. Needless to say, he was a very active politician. Perhaps the activity of his politics had something to do with the frequency of his transformations--for he would always be his somewhat spectacular self; he would always call his soul his own, and he would quietly accept a snub from no man.
And now he was a tram-conductor. Things had come to that.
In the old days of the steam trams, where there were only about a score of tram-conductors and eight miles of line in all the Five Towns, the profession of tram-conductor had still some individuality in it, and a conductor was something more than a number. But since the British Electric Traction Company had invaded the Five Towns, and formed a subsidiary local company, and constructed dozens of miles of new line, and electrified everything, and raised prices, and abolished season tickets, and quickened services, and built hundreds of cars and engaged hundreds of conductors--since then a tram-conductor had been naught but an unhuman automaton in a vast machine-like organization. And passengers no longer had their favourite conductors.
Gossips did not precisely see Thomas Chadwick as an unhuman automaton for the punching of tickets and the ringing of bells and the ejaculation of street names. He was never meant by nature to be part of a system. Gossips hoped for the best. That Chadwick, at his age and with his girth, had been able, in his extremity, to obtain a conductorship was proof that he could bring influences to bear in high quarters. Moreover, he was made conductor of one of two cars that ran on a little branch line between Bursley and Moorthorne, so that to the village of Moorthorne he was still somebody, and the chances were just one to two that persons who travelled by car from or to Moorthorne did so under the majestic wing of Thomas Chadwick. His manner of starting a car was unique and stupendous. He might have been signalling "full speed ahead" from the bridge of an Atlantic liner.
Chadwick's hours aboard his Atlantic liner were so long as to interfere seriously, not only with his leisure, but with his political activities. And this irked him the more for the reason that at that period local politics in the Five Towns were extremely agitated and interesting. People became politicians who had never been politicians before. The question was, whether the Five Towns, being already one town in practice, should not become one town in theory--indeed, the twelfth largest town in the United Kingdom! And the district was divided into Federationists and anti-Federationists. Chadwick was a convinced anti-Federationist. Chadwick, with many others, pointed to the history of Bursley, "the mother of the Five Towns," a history which spread over a thousand years and more; and he asked whether "old Bursley" was to lose her identity merely because Hanbridge had insolently outgrown her. A poll was soon to be taken on the subject, and feelings were growing hotter every day, and rosettes of different colours flowered thicker and thicker in the streets, until nothing but a strong sense of politeness prevented members of the opposing parties from breaking each other's noses in St Luke's Square.
Now on a certain Tuesday afternoon in spring Tommy Chadwick's car stood waiting, opposite the Conservative Club, to depart to Moorthorne. And Tommy Chadwick stood in all his portliness on the platform. The driver, a mere nobody, was of course at the front of the car. The driver held the power, but he could not use it until Tommy Chadwick gave him permission; and somehow Tommy's imperial attitude seemed to indicate this important fact.
There was not a soul in the car.
Then Mrs Clayton Vernon came hurrying up the slope of Duck Bank and signalled to Chadwick to wait for her. He gave her a wave of the arm, kindly and yet deferential, as if to say, "Be at ease, noble dame! You are in the hands of a man of the world, who knows what is due to your position. This car shall stay here till you reach it, even if Thomas Chadwick loses his situation for failing to keep time."
And Mrs Clayton Vernon puffed into the car. And Thomas Chadwick gave her a helping hand, and raised his official cap to her with a dignified sweep; and his glance seemed to be saying to the world, "There, you see what happens when I deign to conduct a car! Even Mrs Clayton Vernon travels by car then." And the whole social level of the electric tramway system was apparently uplifted, and conductors became fine, portly court-chamberlains.
For Mrs Clayton Vernon really was a personage in the town--perhaps, socially, the leading personage. A widow, portly as Tommy himself, wealthy, with a family tradition behind her, and the true grand manner in every gesture! Her entertainments at her house at Hillport were unsurpassed, and those who had been invited to them seldom forgot to mention the fact. Thomas, a person not easily staggered, was nevertheless staggered to see her travelling by car to Moorthorne--even in his car, which to him in some subtle way was not like common cars--for she was seldom seen abroad apart from her carriage. She kept two horses. Assuredly both horses must be laid up together, or her coachman ill. Anyhow, there she was, in Thomas's car, splendidly dressed in a new spring gown of flowered silk.
"Thank you," she said very sweetly to Chadwick, in acknowledgment of his assistance.
Then three men of no particular quality mounted the car.
"How do, Tommy?" one of them carelessly greeted the august conductor. This impertinent youth was Paul Ford, a solicitor's clerk, who often went to Moorthorne because his employer had a branch office there, open twice a week.
Tommy did not respond, but rather showed his displeasure. He hated to be called Tommy, except by a few intimate coevals.
"Now then, hurry up, please!" he said coldly.
"Right oh! your majesty," said another of the men, and they all three laughed.
What was still worse, they all three wore the Federationist rosette, which was red to the bull in Thomas Chadwick. It was part of Tommy's political creed that Federationists were the "rag, tag, and bob-tail" of the town. But as he was a tram-conductor, though not an ordinary tram-conductor, his mouth was sealed, and he could not tell his passengers what he thought of them.
Just as he was about to pull the starting bell, Mrs Clayton Vernon sprang up with a little "Oh, I was quite forgetting!" and almost darted out of the car. It was not quite a dart, for she was of full habit, but the alacrity of her movement was astonishing. She must have forgotten something very important.
An idea in the nature of a political argument suddenly popped into Tommy's head, and it was too much for him. He was obliged to let it out. To the winds with that impartiality which a tram company expects from its conductors!
"Ah!" he remarked, jerking his elbow in the direction of Mrs Clayton Vernon and pointedly addressing his three Federationist passengers, "she's a lady, she is! She won't travel with anybody, she won't! She chooses her company--and quite right too, I say!"
And then he started the car. He felt himself richly avenged by this sally for the "Tommy" and the "your majesty" and the sneering laughter.
Paul Ford winked very visibly at his companions, but made no answering remark. And Thomas Chadwick entered the interior of the car to collect fares. In his hands this operation became a rite. His gestures seemed to say, "No one ever appreciated the importance of the vocation of tram-conductor until I came. We will do this business solemnly and meticulously. Mind what money you give me, count your change, and don't lose, destroy, or deface this indispensable ticket that I hand to you. Do you hear the ting of my bell? It is a sign of my high office. I am fully authorized."
When he had taken his toll he stood at the door of the car, which was now jolting and climbing past the loop-line railway station, and continued his address to the company about the aristocratic and exclusive excellences of his friend Mrs Clayton Vernon. He proceeded to explain the demerits and wickedness of federation, and to descant on the absurdity of those who publicly wore the rosettes of the Federation party, thus branding themselves as imbeciles and knaves; in fact, his tongue was loosed. Although he stooped to accept the wages of a tram-conductor, he was not going to sacrifice the great political right of absolutely free speech.
"If I wasn't the most good-natured man on earth, Tommy Chadwick," said Paul Ford, "I should write to the tram company to-night, and you'd get the boot to-morrow."
"All I say is," persisted the singular conductor--"all I say is--she's a lady, she is--a regular real lady! She chooses her company--and quite right too! That I do say, and nobody's going to stop my mouth." His manner was the least in the world heated.
"What's that?" asked Paul Ford, with a sudden start, not inquiring what Thomas Chadwick's mouth was, but pointing to an object which was lying on the seat in the corner which Mrs Clayton Vernon had too briefly occupied.
He rose and picked up the object, which had the glitter of gold.
"Give it here," said Thomas Chadwick, commandingly. "It's none of your business to touch findings in my car;" and he snatched the object from Paul Ford's hands.
It was so brilliant and so obviously costly, however, that he was somehow obliged to share the wonder of it with his passengers. The find levelled all distinctions between them. A purse of gold chain-work, it indiscreetly revealed that it was gorged with riches. When you shook it the rustle of banknotes was heard, and the chink of sovereigns, and through the meshes of the purse could be seen the white of valuable paper and the tawny orange discs for which mankind is so ready to commit all sorts of sin. Thomas Chadwick could not forbear to open the contrivance, and having opened it he could not forbear to count its contents. There were, in that purse, seven five-pound notes, fifteen sovereigns, and half a sovereign, and the purse itself was probably worth twelve or fifteen pounds as mere gold.
"There's some that would leave their heads behind 'em if they could!" observed Paul Ford.
Thomas Chadwick glowered at him, as if to warn him that in the presence of Thomas Chadwick noble dames could not be insulted with impunity.
"Didn't I say she was a lady?" said Chadwick, holding up the purse as proof. "It's lucky it's me as has laid hands on it!" he added, plainly implying that the other occupants of the car were thieves whenever they had the chance.
"Well," said Paul Ford, "no doubt you'll get your reward all right!"
"It's not--" Chadwick began; but at that moment the driver stopped the car with a jerk, in obedience to a waving umbrella. The conductor, who had not yet got what would have been his sea-legs if he had been captain of an Atlantic liner, lurched forward, and then went out on to the platform to greet a new fare, and his sentence was never finished.
That day happened to be the day of Thomas Chadwick's afternoon off; at least, of what the tram company called an afternoon off. That is to say, instead of ceasing work at eleven-thirty p.m. he finished at six-thirty p.m. In the ordinary way the company housed its last Moorthorne car at eleven-thirty (Moorthorne not being a very nocturnal village), and gave the conductors the rest of the evening to spend exactly as they liked; but once a week, in turn, it generously allowed them a complete afternoon beginning at six-thirty.
Now on this afternoon, instead of going home for tea, Thomas Chadwick, having delivered over his insignia and takings to the inspector in Bursley market-place, rushed away towards a car bound for Hillport. A policeman called out to him:
"What's up?" asked Chadwick, unwillingly stopping.
"Mrs Clayton Vernon's been to the station an hour ago or hardly, about a purse as she says she thinks she must have left in your car. I was just coming across to tell your inspector."
"Tell him, then, my lad," said Chadwick, curtly, and hurried on towards the Hillport car. His manner to policemen always mingled the veteran with the comrade, and most of them indeed regarded him as an initiate of the craft. Still, his behaviour on this occasion did somewhat surprise the young policeman who had accosted him. And undoubtedly Thomas Chadwick was scarcely acting according to the letter of the law. His proper duty was to hand over all articles found in his car instantly to the police--certainly not to keep them concealed on his person with a view to restoring them with his own hands to their owners. But Thomas Chadwick felt that, having once been a policeman, he was at liberty to interpret the law to suit his own convenience. He caught the Hillport car, and nodded the professional nod to its conductor, asking him a technical question, and generally showing to the other passengers on the platform that he was not as they, and that he had important official privileges. Of course, he travelled free; and of course he stopped the car when, its conductor being inside, two ladies signalled to it at the bottom of Oldcastle Street. He had meant to say nothing whatever about his treasure and his errand to the other conductor; but somehow, when fares had been duly collected, and these two stood chatting on the platform, the gold purse got itself into the conversation, and presently the other conductor knew the entire history, and had even had a glimpse of the purse itself.
Opposite the entrance to Mrs Clayton Vernon's grounds at Hillport Thomas Chadwick slipped neatly, for all his vast bulk, off the swiftly-gliding car. (A conductor on a car but not on duty would sooner perish by a heavy fall than have a car stopped in order that he might descend from it.) And Thomas Chadwick heavily crunched the gravel of the drive leading up to Mrs Clayton Vernon's house, and imperiously rang the bell.
"Mrs Clayton Vernon in?" he officially asked the responding servant.
"She's in," said the servant. Had Thomas Chadwick been wearing his broadcloth she would probably have added "sir."
"Well, will you please tell her that Mr Chadwick--Thomas Chadwick--wants to speak to her?"
"Is it about the purse?" the servant questioned, suddenly brightening into eager curiosity.
"Never you mind what it's about, miss," said Thomas Chadwick, sternly.
At the same moment Mrs Clayton Vernon's grey-curled head appeared behind the white cap of the servant. Probably she had happened to catch some echo of Thomas Chadwick's great rolling voice. The servant retired.
"Good-evening, m'm," said Thomas Chadwick, raising his hat airily. "Good-evening." He beamed.
"So you did find it?" said Mrs Vernon, calmly smiling. "I felt sure it would be all right."
"Oh, yes, m'm." He tried to persuade himself that this sublime confidence was characteristic of great ladies, and a laudable symptom of aristocracy. But he would have preferred her to be a little less confident. After all, in the hands of a conductor less honourable than himself, of a common conductor, the purse might not have been so "all right" as all that! He would have preferred to witness the change on Mrs Vernon's features from desperate anxiety to glad relief. After all, L50, 10s. was money, however rich you were!
"Have you got it with you?" asked Mrs Vernon.
"Yes'm," said he. "I thought I'd just step up with it myself, so as to be sure."
"It's very good of you!"
"Not at all," said he; and he produced the purse. "I think you'll find it as it should be."
Mrs Vernon gave him a courtly smile as she thanked him.
"I'd like ye to count it, ma'am," said Chadwick, as she showed no intention of even opening the purse.
"If you wish it," said she, and counted her wealth and restored it to the purse. "Quite right--quite right! Fifty pounds and ten shillings," she said pleasantly. "I'm very much obliged to you, Chadwick."
"Not at all, m'm!" He was still standing in the sheltered porch.
An idea seemed to strike Mrs Clayton Vernon.
"Would you like something to drink?" she asked.
"Well, thank ye, m'm," said Thomas.
"Maria," said Mrs Vernon, calling to someone within the house, "bring this man a glass of beer." And she turned again to Chadwick, smitten with another idea. "Let me see. Your eldest daughter has two little boys, hasn't she?"
"Yes'm," said Thomas--"twins."
"I thought so. Her husband is my cook's cousin. Well, here's two threepenny bits--one for each of them." With some trouble she extracted the coins from a rather shabby leather purse--evidently her household purse. She bestowed them upon the honest conductor with another grateful and condescending smile. "I hope you don't mind taking them for the chicks," she said. "I do like giving things to children. It's so much nicer, isn't it?"
Then the servant brought the glass of beer, and Mrs Vernon, with yet another winning smile, and yet more thanks, left him to toss it off on the mat, while the servant waited for the empty glass.
On the following Friday afternoon young Paul Ford was again on the Moorthorne car, and subject to the official ministrations of Thomas Chadwick. Paul Ford was a man who never bore malice when the bearing of malice might interfere with the gratification of his sense of humour. Many men--perhaps most men--after being so grossly insulted by a tram-conductor as Paul Ford had been insulted by Chadwick, would at the next meeting have either knocked the insulter down or coldly ignored him. But Paul Ford did neither. (In any case, Thomas Chadwick would have wanted a deal of knocking down.) For some reason, everything that Thomas Chadwick said gave immense amusement to Paul Ford. So the young man commenced the conversation in the usual way:
"How do, Tommy?"
The car on this occasion was coming down from Moorthorne into Bursley, with its usual bump and rattle of windows. As Thomas Chadwick made no reply, Paul Ford continued:
"How much did she give you--the perfect lady, I mean?"
Paul Ford was sitting near the open door. Thomas Chadwick gazed absently at the Town Park, with its terra-cotta fountains and terraces, and beyond the Park, at the smoke rising from the distant furnaces of Red Cow. He might have been lost in deep meditation upon the meanings of life; he might have been prevented from hearing Paul Ford's question by the tremendous noise of the car. He made no sign. Then all of a sudden he turned almost fiercely on Paul Ford and glared at him.
"Ye want to know how much she gave me, do ye?" he demanded hotly.
"Yes," said Paul Ford.
"How much she gave me for taking her that there purse?" Tommy Chadwick temporized.
He was obliged to temporize, because he could not quite resolve to seize the situation and deal with it once for all in a manner favourable to his dignity and to the ideals which he cherished.
"Yes," said Paul Ford.
"Well, I'll tell ye," said Thomas Chadwick--"though I don't know as it's any business of yours. But, as you're so curious!... She didn't give me anything. She asked me to have a little refreshment, like the lady she is. But she knew better than to offer Thomas Chadwick any pecooniary reward for giving her back something as she'd happened to drop. She's a lady, she is!"
"Oh!" said Paul Ford. "It don't cost much, being a lady!"
"But I'll tell ye what she did do," Thomas Chadwick went on, anxious, now that he had begun so well, to bring the matter to an artistic conclusion--"I'll tell ye what she did do. She give me a sovereign apiece for my grandsons--my eldest daughter's twins." Then, after an effective pause: "Ye can put that in your pipe and smoke it!... A sovereign apiece!"
"And have you handed it over?" Paul Ford inquired mildly, after a period of soft whistling.
"I've started two post-office savings bank accounts for 'em," said Thomas Chadwick, with ferocity.
The talk stopped, and nothing whatever occurred until the car halted at the railway station to take up passengers. The heart of Thomas Chadwick gave a curious little jump when he saw Mrs Clayton Vernon coming out of the station and towards his car. (Her horses must have been still lame or her coachman still laid aside.) She boarded the car, smiling with a quite particular effulgence upon Thomas Chadwick, and he greeted her with what he imagined to be the true antique chivalry. And she sat down in the corner opposite to Paul Ford, beaming.
When Thomas Chadwick came, with great respect, to demand her fare, she said:
"By the way, Chadwick, it's such a short distance from the station to the town, I think I should have walked and saved a penny. But I wanted to speak to you. I wasn't aware, last Tuesday, that your other daughter got married last year and now has a dear little baby. I gave you threepenny bits each for those dear little twins. Here's another one for the other baby, I think I ought to treat all your grandchildren alike--otherwise your daughters might be jealous of each other"--she smiled archly, to indicate that this passage was humorous--"and there's no knowing what might happen!"
Mrs Clayton Vernon always enunciated her remarks in a loud and clear voice, so that Paul Ford could not have failed to hear every word. A faint but beatific smile concealed itself roguishly about Paul Ford's mouth, and he looked with a rapt expression on an advertisement above Mrs Clayton Vernon's head, which assured him that, with a certain soap, washing-day became a pleasure.
Thomas Chadwick might have flung the threepenny bit into the road. He might have gone off into language unseemly in a tram-conductor and a grandfather. He might have snatched Mrs Clayton Vernon's bonnet off and stamped on it. He might have killed Paul Ford (for it was certainly Paul Ford with whom he was the most angry). But he did none of these things. He said, in his best unctuous voice:
"Thank you, m'm, I'm sure!"
And, at the journey's end, when the passengers descended, he stared a harsh stare, without winking, full in the face of Paul Ford, and he courteously came to the aid of Mrs Clayton Vernon. He had proclaimed Mrs Clayton Vernon to be his ideal of a true lady, and he was heroically loyal to his ideal, a martyr to the cause he had espoused. Such a man was not fitted to be a tram-conductor, and the Five Towns Electric Traction Company soon discovered his unfitness--so that he was again thrown upon the world.