George Peel and Mary, his wife, sat down to breakfast. Their only son, Georgie, was already seated. George the younger showed an astounding disregard for the decencies of life, and a frankly gluttonous absorption in food which amounted to cynicism. Evidently he cared for nothing but the satisfaction of bodily desires. Yet he was twenty-two months old, and occupied a commanding situation in a high chair! His father and mother were aged thirty-two and twenty-eight respectively. They both had pale, intellectual faces; they were dressed with elegance, and their gestures were the gestures of people accustomed to be waited upon and to consider luxuries as necessaries. There was silver upon the table, and the room, though small and somewhat disordered, had in it beautiful things which had cost money. Through a doorway half-screened by a portiere could be seen a large studio peopled with heroic statuary, plaster casts, and lumps of clay veiled in wet cloths. And on the other side of the great window of the studio green trees waved their foliage. The trees were in Regent's Park. Another detail to show that the Peels had not precisely failed in life: the time was then ten-thirty o'clock! Millions of persons in London had already been at hard work for hours.
And indeed George Peel was not merely a young sculptor of marked talent; he was also a rising young sculptor. For instance, when you mentioned his name in artistic circles the company signified that it knew whom you meant, and those members of the company who had never seen his work had to feel ashamed of themselves. Further, he had lately been awarded the Triennial Gold Medal of the International Society, an honour that no Englishman had previously achieved. His friends and himself had, by the way, celebrated this dazzling event by a noble and joyous gathering in the studio, at which famous personages had been present.
Everybody knew that George Peel, in addition to what he earned, had important "private resources." For even rising young sculptors cannot live luxuriously on what they gain, and you cannot eat gold medals. Nor will gold medals pay a heavy rent or the cost of manual help in marble cutting. All other rising young sculptors envied George Peel, and he rather condescended to them (in his own mind) because they had to keep up appearances by means of subterfuges, whereas there was no deception about his large and ample existence.
On the table by Mary's plate was a letter, the sole letter. It had come by the second post. The contents of the first post had been perused in bed. While Mary was scraping porridge off the younger George's bib with a spoon, and wiping porridge out of his eyes with a serviette, George the elder gave just a glance at the letter.
"So he has written after all!" said George, in a voice that tried to be nonchalant.
"Who?" asked Mary, although she had already seen the envelope, and knew exactly what George meant. And her voice also was unnatural in its attempted casualness.
"The old cock," said George, beginning to serve bacon.
"Oh!" said Mary, coming to her chair, and beginning to dispense tea.
She was dying to open the letter, yet she poured out the tea with superhuman leisureliness, and then indicated to Georgie exactly where to search for bits of porridge on his big plate, while George with a great appearance of calm unfolded a newspaper. Then at length she did open the letter. Having read it, she put her lips tighter together, nodded, and passed the letter to George. And George read:
"DEAR MARY,--I cannot accede to your request.--Your affectionate uncle, SAMUEL PEEL.
"P.S.--The expenses connected with my County Council election will be terrible. S.P."
George lifted his eyebrows, as if to indicate that in his opinion there was no accounting for the wild stupidity of human nature, and that he as a philosopher refused to be startled by anything whatever.
"Curt!" he muttered coldly.
Mary uneasily laughed.
"What shall you do?" she inquired.
"Without!" replied George, with a curtness that equalled Mary's uncle's.
"And what about the rent?"
"The rent will have to wait."
A brave young man! Nevertheless he saw in that moment chasms at his feet--chasms in which he and his wife and child and his brilliant prospects might be swallowed up. He changed the subject.
"You didn't see this cutting," he said, and passed a slip from a newspaper gummed to a piece of green paper.
George, in his quality of rising young sculptor, received Press cuttings from an agency. This one was from a somewhat vulgar Society journal, and it gave, in two paragraphs, an account of the recent festivity at George's studio. It finished with the words: "Heidsieck flowed freely." He could not guess who had written it. No! It was not in the nicest taste, but it furnished indubitable proof that George was still rising, that he was a figure in the world. "What a rag!" he observed, with an explosion of repugnance. "Read by suburban shop-girls, I suppose."
George had arranged his career in a quite exceptional way. It is true that chance had served him; but then he had known how to make use of chance to the highest advantage. The chance that had served him lay in the facts that Mary Peel had fallen gravely in love with him, that her sole surviving relative was a rich uncle, and that George's surname was the same as hers and her uncle's. He had met niece and uncle in Bursley in the Five Towns, where old Samuel Peel was a personage, and, timidly, a patron of the arts. Having regard to his golden hair and affection-compelling appearance, it was not surprising that Mary, accustomed to the monotony of her uncle's house, had surrendered her heart to him. And it was not surprising that old Peel had at once consented to the match, and made a will in favour of Mary and her offspring. What was surprising was that old Peel should have begun to part with his money at once, and in large quantities, for he was not of a very open-handed disposition.
The explanation of old Samuel Peel's generosity was due to his being a cousin of the Peels of Bursley, the great eighteenth-century family of earthenware manufacturers. The main branch had died out, the notorious Carlotta Peel having expired shockingly in Paris, and another young descendant, Matthew, having been forced under a will to alter his name to Peel-Swynnerton. So that only the distant cousin, Samuel Peel, was left, and he was a bachelor with no prospect of ever being anything else. Now Samuel had made a fortune of his own, and he considered that all the honour and all the historical splendours of the Peel family were concentrated in himself. And he tried to be worthy of them. He tried to restore the family traditions. For this he became a benefactor to his native town, a patron of the arts, and a candidate for the Staffordshire County Council. And when Mary set her young mind on a young man of parts and of ambition, and bearing by hazard the very same name of Peel, old Samuel Peel said to himself: "The old family name will not die out. It ought to be more magnificent than ever." He said this also to George Peel.
Whereupon George Peel talked to him persuasively and sensibly about the risks and the prizes of the sculptor's career. He explained just how extremely ambitious he was, and all that he had already done, and all that he intended to do. And he convinced his uncle-in-law that young sculptors were tremendously handicapped in an expensive and difficult profession by poverty or at least narrowness of means. He convinced his uncle-in-law that the best manner of succeeding was to begin at the top, to try for only the highest things, to sell nothing cheaply, to be haughty with dealers and connoisseurs, and to cut a figure in the very centre of the art-world of London. George was a good talker, and all that he said was perfectly true. And his uncle was dazzled by the immediate prospect of new fame for the ancient family of Peel. And in the end old Samuel promised to give George and Mary five hundred a year, so that George, as a sculptor, might begin at the top and "succeed like success." And George went off with his bride to London, whence he had come. And the old man thought he had done a very noble and a very wonderful thing, which, indeed, he had.
This had occurred when George was twenty-five.
Matters fell out rather as George had predicted. The youth almost at once obtained a commission for three hundred pounds' worth of symbolic statues for the front of the central offices of the Order of Rechabites, which particularly pleased his uncle, because Samuel Peel was a strong temperance man. And George got one or two other commissions.
Being extravagant was to George Peel the same thing as "putting all the profits into the business" is to a manufacturer. He was extravagant and ostentatious on principle, and by far-sighted policy--or, at least, he thought that he was.
And thus the world's rumours multiplied his success, and many persons said and believed that he was making quite two thousand a year, and would be an A.R.A. before he was grey-haired. But George always related the true facts to his uncle-in-law; he even made them out to be much less satisfactory than they really were. His favourite phrase in letters to his uncle was that he was "building," "building"--not houses, but his future reputation and success.
Then commissions fell off or grew intermittent, or were refused as being unworthy of George's dignity. And then young Georgie arrived, with his insatiable appetites and his vociferous need of doctors, nurses, perambulators, nurseries, and lacy garments. And all the time young George's father kept his head high and continued to be extravagant by far-sighted policy. And the five hundred a year kept coming in regularly by quarterly instalments. Many a tight morning George nearly decided that Mary must write to her uncle and ask for a little supplementary estimate. But he never did decide, partly because he was afraid, and partly from sheer pride. (According to his original statements to his uncle-in-law, seven years earlier, he ought at this epoch to have been in an assured position with a genuine income of thousands.)
But the state of trade worsened, and he had a cheque dishonoured. And then he won the Triennial Gold Medal. And then at length he did arrange with Mary that she should write to old Samuel and roundly ask him for an extra couple of hundred. They composed the letter together; and they stated the reasons so well, and convinced themselves so completely of the righteousness of their cause, that for a few moments they looked on the two hundred as already in hand. Hence the Heidsieck night. But on the morrow of the Heidsieck night they thought differently. And George was gloomy. He felt humiliated by the necessity of the application to his uncle--the first he had ever made. And he feared the result.
His fears were justified.
They were far more than justified. Three mornings after the first letter, to which she had made no reply, Mary received a second. It ran:
"DEAR MARY,--And what is more, I shall henceforth pay you three hundred instead of five hundred a year. If George has not made a position for himself it is quite time he had. The Gold Medal must make a lot of difference to him. And if necessary you must economize. I am sure there is room for economy in your household. Champagne, for instance.--Your affectionate uncle, SAMUEL PEEL.
"P.S.--I am, of course, acting in your best interests.
This letter infuriated George, so much so that George the younger, observing strange symptoms on his father's face, and strange sounds issuing from his father's mouth, stopped eating in order to give the whole of his attention to them.
"Champagne! What's he driving at?" exclaimed George, glaring at Mary as though it was Mary who had written the letter.
"I expect he's been reading that paper," said Mary.
"Do you mean to say," George asked scornfully, "that your uncle reads a rag like that? I thought all his lot looked down on worldliness."
"So they do," said Mary. "But somehow they like reading about it. I believe uncle has read it every week for twenty years."
"Well, why didn't you tell me?"
"The other morning?"
"Oh, I didn't want to worry you. What good would it have done?"
"What good would it have done!" George repeated in accents of terrible disdain, as though the good that it would have done was obvious to the lowest intelligence. (Yet he knew quite well that it would have done no good at all.) "Georgie, take that spoon out of your sleeve."
And Georgie, usually disobedient, took the porridge-laden spoon out of his sleeve and glanced at his mother for moral protection. His mother merely wiped him rather roughly. Georgie thought, once more, that he never in this world should understand grown-up people. And the recurring thought made him cry gently.
George lapsed into savage meditation. During all the seven years of his married life he had somehow supposed himself to be superior, as a man, to his struggling rivals. He had regarded them with easy toleration, as from a height. And now he saw himself tumbling down among them, humiliated. Everything seemed unreal to him then. The studio and the breakfast-room were solid; the waving trees in Regent's Park were solid; the rich knick-knacks and beautiful furniture and excellent food and fine clothes were all solid enough; but they seemed most disconcertingly unreal. One letter from old Samuel had made them tremble, and the second had reduced them to illusions, or delusions. Even George's reputation as a rising sculptor appeared utterly fallacious. What rendered him savage was the awful injustice of Samuel. Samuel had no right whatever to play him such a trick. It was, in a way, worse than if Samuel had cut off the allowance altogether, for in that case he could at any rate have gone majestically to Samuel and said: "Your niece and her child are starving." But with a minimum of three hundred a year for their support three people cannot possibly starve.
"Ring the bell and have this kid taken out," said he.
Whereupon Georgie yelled.
Kate came, a starched white-and-blue young thing of sixteen.
"Kate," said George, autocratically, "take baby."
"Yes, sir," said Kate, with respectful obedience. The girl had no notion that she was not real to her master, or that her master was saying to himself: "I ought not to be ordering human beings about like this. I can't pay their wages. I ought to be starving in a garret."
When George and Mary were alone, George said: "Look here! Does he mean it?"
"You may depend he means it. It's so like him. Me asking for that L200 must have upset him. And then seeing that about Heidsieck in the paper--he'd make up his mind all of a sudden--I know him so well."
"H'm!" snorted George. "I shall make my mind up all of a sudden, too!"
"What shall you do?"
"There's one thing I shan't do," said George.
"And that is, stop here. Do you realize, my girl, that we shall be absolutely up a gum-tree?"
"I should have thought you would be able--"
"Absolute gum-tree!" George interrupted her. "Simply can't keep the shop open! To-morrow, my child, we go down to Bursley."
"You, me, and the infant."
"And what about the servants?"
"Send 'em home."
"But we can't descend on uncle like that without notice, and him full of his election! Besides, he's cross."
"We shan't descend on him."
"Then where shall you go?"
"We shall put up at the Tiger," said George, impressively.
"The Tiger?" gasped Mary.
George had meant to stagger, and he had staggered.
"The Tiger," he iterated.
"But what will uncle say? I shouldn't be surprised if uncle has never been in the Tiger in his life. You know his views--"
"I don't care twopence for your uncle," said George, again implicitly blaming Mary for the peculiarities of her uncle's character. "Something's got to be done, and I'm going to do it."
Two days later, at about ten o'clock in the morning, Samuel Peel, J.P., entered the market-place, Bursley, from the top of Oldcastle Street. He had walked down, as usual, from his dignified residence at Hillport. It was his day for the Bench, and he had, moreover, a lot of complicated election business. On a dozen hoardings between Hillport and Bursley market-place blazed the red letters of his posters inviting the faithful to vote for Peel, whose family had been identified with the district for a century and a half. He was pleased with these posters, and with the progress of canvassing. A slight and not a tall man, with a feeble grey beard and a bald head, he was yet a highly-respected figure in the town. He had imposed himself upon the town by regular habits, strict morals, a reasonable philanthropy, and a successful career. He had, despite natural disadvantages, upheld on high the great name of Peel. So that he entered the town on that fine morning with a certain conquering jauntiness. And citizens saluted him with respect and he responded with benignity.
And as, nearly opposite that celebrated hotel, the Tiger, he was about to cross over to the eastern porch of the Town Hall, he saw a golden-haired man approaching him with a perambulator. And the sight made him pause involuntarily. It was a strange sight. Then he recognized his nephew-in-law. And he blanched, partly from excessive astonishment, but partly from fear.
"How do, uncle?" said George, nonchalantly, as though he had parted from him on the previous evening. "Just hang on to this pram a sec., will you?" And, pushing the perambulator towards Samuel Peel, J.P., George swiftly fled, and, for the perfection of his uncle-in-law's amazement, disappeared into the Tiger.
Then the occupant of the perambulator began to weep.
The figure of Samuel Peel, dressed as a Justice of the Peace should be dressed for the Bench, in a frock-coat and a ceremonious necktie, and (of course) spats over his spotless boots; the figure of Samuel Peel, the wrinkled and dry bachelor (who never in his life had held a saucepan of infant's food over a gas-jet in the middle of the night), this figure staring horror-struck through spectacles at the loud contents of the perambulator, soon excited attention in the market-place of Bursley. And Mr Peel perceived the attention.
He guessed that the babe was Mary's babe, though he was quite incapable of recognizing it. And he could not imagine what George was doing with it (and the perambulator) in Bursley, nor why he had vanished so swiftly into the Tiger, nor why he had not come out again. The whole situation was in the acutest degree mysterious. It was also in the acutest degree amazing. Samuel Peel had no facility in baby-talk, so, to tranquillize Georgie, he attempted soothing strokes or pats on such portions of Georgie's skin as were exposed. Whereupon Georgie shrieked, and even dogs stood still and lifted noses inquiringly.
Then Jos Curtenty, very ancient but still a wag, passed by, and said:
"Hello, Mr Peel. Truth will out. And yet who'd ha' suspected you o' being secretly married!"
Samuel Peel could not take offence, because Jos Curtenty, besides being old and an alderman, and an ex-Mayor, was an important member of his election committee. Of course such a friendly joke from an incurable joker like Jos Curtenty was all right; but supposing enemies began to joke on similar lines--how he might be prejudiced at the polls! It was absurd, totally absurd, to conceive Samuel Peel in any other relation than that of an uncle to a baby; yet the more absurd a slander the more eagerly it was believed, and a slander once started could never be overtaken.
What on earth was George Peel doing in Bursley with that baby? Why had he not announced his arrival? Where was the baby's mother? Where was their luggage? Why, in the name of reason, had George vanished so swiftly into the Tiger, and what in the name of decency and sobriety was he doing in the Tiger such a prodigious time?
It occurred to him that possibly George had written to him and the letter had miscarried.
But in that case, where had they slept the previous night? They could not have come down from London that morning; it was too early.
Little Georgie persevered in the production of yells that might have been heard as far as the Wesleyan Chapel, and certainly as far as the Conservative Club.
Then Mr Duncalf, the Town Clerk, went by, from his private office, towards the Town Hall, and saw the singular spectacle of the public man and the perambulator. Mr Duncalf, too, was a bachelor.
"So you've come down to see 'em," said Mr Duncalf, gruffly, pretending that the baby was not there.
"Well, your niece and her husband, of course."
"Where are they?" asked Mr Peel, without having; sufficiently considered the consequences of his question.
"Aren't they in the Tiger?" said Mr Duncalf. "They put up there yesterday afternoon, anyhow. But naturally you know that."
He departed, nodding. The baby's extraordinary noise incommoded him and seemed somehow to make him blush if he stood near it.
Mr Peel did not gasp. It is at least two centuries since men gasped from astonishment. Nevertheless, Mr Duncalf with those careless words had simply knocked the breath out of him. Never, never would he have guessed, even in the wildest surmise, that Mary and her husband and child would sleep at the Tiger! The thought unmanned him. What! A baby at the Tiger!
Let it not be imagined for a moment that the Tiger is not an utterly respectable hotel. It is, always was, always will be. Not the faintest slur had ever been cast upon its licence. Still, it had a bar and a barmaid, and indubitably people drank at the bar. When a prominent man took to drink (as prominent men sometimes did), people would say, "He's always nipping into the Tiger!" Or, "You'll see him at the Tiger before eleven o'clock in the morning!" Hence to Samuel Peel, total abstainer and temperance reformer, the Tiger, despite its vast respectability and the reputation of its eighteen-penny ordinary, was a place of sin, a place of contamination; briefly, a "gin palace," if not a "gaming-saloon." On principle, Samuel Peel (as his niece suspected) had never set foot in the Tiger. The thought that his great-nephew and his niece had actually slept there horrified him.
And further and worse; what would people say about Samuel Peel's relatives having to stop at the Tiger, while Samuel Peel's large house up at Hillport was practically empty? Would they not deduce family quarrels, feuds, scandals? The situation was appalling.
He glanced about, but he did not look high enough to see that George was watching him from a second-floor window of the Tiger, and he could not hear Mary imploring George: "Do for goodness sake go back to him." Ladies passed along the pavement, stifling their curiosity. At the back of the Town Hall there began to collect the usual crowd of idlers who interest themselves in the sittings of the police-court.
Then Georgie, bored with weeping, dropped off into slumber. Samuel Peel saw that he could not, with dignity, lift the perambulator up the steps into the porch of the Tiger, and so he began to wheel it cautiously down the side-entrance into the Tiger yard. And in the yard he met George, just emerging from the side-door on whose lamp is written the word "Billiards."
"So sorry to have troubled you, uncle. But the wife's unwell, and I'd forgotten something. Asleep, is he?"
George spoke in a matter-of-fact tone, with no hint whatever that he bore ill-will against Samuel Peel for having robbed him of two hundred a year. And Samuel felt as though he had robbed George of two hundred a year.
"But--but," asked Samuel, "what are you doing here?"
"We're stopping here," said George. "I've come down to look out for some work--modelling, or anything I can get hold of. I shall begin a round of the manufacturers this afternoon. We shall stay here till I can find furnished rooms, or a cheap house. It's all up with sculpture now, you know."
"Why! I thought you were doing excellently. That medal--"
"Yes. In reputation. But it was just now that I wanted money for a big job, and--and--well, I couldn't have it. So there you are. Seven years wasted. But, of course, it was better to cut the loss. I never pretend that things aren't what they are. Mind you, I'm not blaming you, uncle. You're no doubt hard up like other people."
"But--but," Samuel began stammering again. "Why didn't you come straight to me--instead of here?"
George put on a confidential look.
"The fact is," said he, "Mary wouldn't. She's vexed. You know how women are. They never understand things--especially money."
"Vexed with me?"
"But why?" Again Samuel felt like a culprit.
"I fancy it must be something you said in your letter concerning champagne."
"It was only what I read about you in a paper."
"I suppose so. But she thinks you meant it to insult her. She thinks you must have known perfectly well that we simply asked the reporter to put champagne in because it looks well--seems very flourishing, you know."
"I must see Mary," said Samuel. "Of course the idea of you staying on here is perfectly ridiculous, perfectly ridiculous. What do you suppose people will say?"
"I'd like you-to-see her," said George. "I wish you would. You may be able to do what I can't. You'll find her in Room 14. She's all dressed. But I warn you she's in a fine state."
"You'd better come too," said Samuel.
George lifted Georgie out of the perambulator.
"Here," said George. "Suppose you carry him to her."
Samuel hesitated, and yielded. And the strange procession started upstairs.
In two hours a cab was taking all the Peels to Hillport.
In two days George and his family were returning to London, sure of the continuance of five hundred a year, and with a gift of two hundred supplementary cash.
But it was long before Bursley ceased to talk of George Peel and his family putting up at the Tiger. And it was still longer before the barmaid ceased to describe to her favourite customers the incredible spectacle of Samuel Peel, J.P., stumbling up the stairs of the Tiger with an infant in his arms.