But when a man has once broken through the paper walls of everyday circumstance, those unsubstantial walls that hold so many of us securely prisoned from the cradle to the grave, he has made a discovery. If the world does not please you you can change it. Determine to alter it at any price, and you can change it altogether. You may change it to something sinister and angry, to something appalling, but it may be you will change it to something brighter, something more agreeable, and at the worst something much more interesting. There is only one sort of man who is absolutely to blame for his own misery, and that is the man who finds life dull and dreary. There are no circumstances in the world that determined action cannot alter, unless perhaps they are the walls of a prison cell, and even those will dissolve and change, I am told, into the infirmary compartment at any rate, for the man who can fast with resolution. I give these things as facts and information, and with no moral intimations. And Mr. Polly lying awake at nights, with a renewed indigestion, with Miriam sleeping sonorously beside him and a general air of inevitableness about his situation, saw through it, understood there was no inevitable any more, and escaped his former despair.
He could, for example, “clear out.”
It became a wonderful and alluring phrase to him: “clear out!”
Why had he never thought of clearing out before?
He was amazed and a little shocked at the unimaginative and superfluous criminality in him that had turned old cramped and stagnant Fishbourne into a blaze and new beginnings. (I wish from the bottom of my heart I could add that he was properly sorry.) But something constricting and restrained seemed to have been destroyed by that flare. Fishbourne wasn’t the world. That was the new, the essential fact of which he had lived so lamentably in ignorance. Fishbourne as he had known it and hated it, so that he wanted to kill himself to get out of it, wasn’t the world.
The insurance money he was to receive made everything humane and kindly and practicable. He would “clear out,” with justice and humanity. He would take exactly twenty-one pounds, and all the rest he would leave to Miriam. That seemed to him absolutely fair. Without him, she could do all sorts of things—all the sorts of things she was constantly urging him to do.
And he would go off along the white road that led to Garchester, and on to Crogate and so to Tunbridge Wells, where there was a Toad Rock he had heard of, but never seen. (It seemed to him this must needs be a marvel.) And so to other towns and cities. He would walk and loiter by the way, and sleep in inns at night, and get an odd job here and there and talk to strange people. Perhaps he would get quite a lot of work and prosper, and if he did not do so he would lie down in front of a train, or wait for a warm night, and then fall into some smooth, broad river. Not so bad as sitting down to a dentist, not nearly so bad. And he would never open a shop any more. Never!
So the possibilities of the future presented themselves to Mr. Polly as he lay awake at nights.
It was springtime, and in the woods so soon as one got out of reach of the sea wind, there would be anémones and primroses.
A month later a leisurely and dusty tramp, plump equatorially and slightly bald, with his hands in his pockets and his lips puckered to a contemplative whistle, strolled along the river bank between Uppingdon and Potwell. It was a profusely budding spring day and greens such as God had never permitted in the world before in human memory (though indeed they come every year), were mirrored vividly in a mirror of equally unprecedented brown. For a time the wanderer stopped and stood still, and even the thin whistle died away from his lips as he watched a water vole run to and fro upon a little headland across the stream. The vole plopped into the water and swam and dived and only when the last ring of its disturbance had vanished did Mr. Polly resume his thoughtful course to nowhere in particular.
For the first time in many years he had been leading a healthy human life, living constantly in the open air, walking every day for eight or nine hours, eating sparingly, accepting every conversational opportunity, not even disdaining the discussion of possible work. And beyond mending a hole in his coat that he had made while negotiating barbed wire, with a borrowed needle and thread in a lodging house, he had done no work at all. Neither had he worried about business nor about time and seasons. And for the first time in his life he had seen the Aurora Borealis.
So far the holiday had cost him very little. He had arranged it on a plan that was entirely his own. He had started with four five-pound notes and a pound divided into silver, and he had gone by train from Fishbourne to Ashington. At Ashington he had gone to the post-office, obtained a registered letter, and sent his four five-pound notes with a short brotherly note addressed to himself at Gilhampton Post-office. He sent this letter to Gilhampton for no other reason in the world than that he liked the name of Gilhampton and the rural suggestion of its containing county, which was Sussex, and having so despatched it, he set himself to discover, mark down and walk to Gilhampton, and so recover his resources. And having got to Gilhampton at last, he changed his five-pound note, bought four pound postal orders, and repeated his manoeuvre with nineteen pounds.
After a lapse of fifteen years he rediscovered this interesting world, about which so many people go incredibly blind and bored. He went along country roads while all the birds were piping and chirruping and cheeping and singing, and looked at fresh new things, and felt as happy and irresponsible as a boy with an unexpected half-holiday. And if ever the thought of Miriam returned to him he controlled his mind. He came to country inns and sat for unmeasured hours talking of this and that to those sage carters who rest for ever in the taps of country inns, while the big sleek brass jingling horses wait patiently outside with their waggons; he got a job with some van people who were wandering about the country with swings and a steam roundabout and remained with them for three days, until one of their dogs took a violent dislike to him and made his duties unpleasant; he talked to tramps and wayside labourers, he snoozed under hedges by day and in outhouses and hayricks at night, and once, but only once, he slept in a casual ward. He felt as the etiolated grass and daisies must do when you move the garden roller away to a new place.
He gathered a quantity of strange and interesting memories.
He crossed some misty meadows by moonlight and the mist lay low on the grass, so low that it scarcely reached above his waist, and houses and clumps of trees stood out like islands in a milky sea, so sharply denned was the upper surface of the mistbank. He came nearer and nearer to a strange thing that floated like a boat upon this magic lake, and behold! something moved at the stern and a rope was whisked at the prow, and it had changed into a pensive cow, drowsy-eyed, regarding him....
He saw a remarkable sunset in a new valley near Maidstone, a very red and clear sunset, a wide redness under a pale cloudless heaven, and with the hills all round the edge of the sky a deep purple blue and clear and flat, looking exactly as he had seen mountains painted in pictures. He seemed transported to some strange country, and would have felt no surprise if the old labourer he came upon leaning silently over a gate had addressed him in an unfamiliar tongue....
Then one night, just towards dawn, his sleep upon a pile of brushwood was broken by the distant rattle of a racing motor car breaking all the speed regulations, and as he could not sleep again, he got up and walked into Maidstone as the day came. He had never been abroad in a town at half-past two in his life before, and the stillness of everything in the bright sunrise impressed him profoundly. At one corner was a startling policeman, standing in a doorway quite motionless, like a waxen image. Mr. Polly wished him “good morning” unanswered, and went down to the bridge over the Medway and sat on the parapet very still and thoughtful, watching the town awaken, and wondering what he should do if it didn’t, if the world of men never woke again....
One day he found himself going along a road, with a wide space of sprouting bracken and occasional trees on either side, and suddenly this road became strangely, perplexingly familiar. “Lord!” he said, and turned about and stood. “It can’t be.”
He was incredulous, then left the road and walked along a scarcely perceptible track to the left, and came in half a minute to an old lichenous stone wall. It seemed exactly the bit of wall he had known so well. It might have been but yesterday he was in that place; there remained even a little pile of wood. It became absurdly the same wood. The bracken perhaps was not so high, and most of its fronds still uncoiled; that was all. Here he had stood, it seemed, and there she had sat and looked down upon him. Where was she now, and what had become of her? He counted the years back and marvelled that beauty should have called to him with so imperious a voice—and signified nothing.
He hoisted himself with some little difficulty to the top of the wall, and saw off under the beech trees two schoolgirls—small, insignificant, pig-tailed creatures, with heads of blond and black, with their arms twined about each other’s necks, no doubt telling each other the silliest secrets.
But that girl with the red hair—was she a countess? was she a queen? Children perhaps? Had sorrow dared to touch her?
Had she forgotten altogether?...
A tramp sat by the roadside thinking, and it seemed to the man in the passing motor car he must needs be plotting for another pot of beer. But as a matter of fact what the tramp was saying to himself over and over again was a variant upon a well-known Hebrew word.
“Itchabod,” the tramp was saying in the voice of one who reasons on the side of the inevitable. “It’s Fair Itchabod, O’ Man. There’s no going back to it.”
It was about two o’clock in the afternoon one hot day in high May when Mr. Polly, unhurrying and serene, came to that broad bend of the river to which the little lawn and garden of the Potwell Inn run down. He stopped at the sight of the place with its deep tiled roof, nestling under big trees—you never get a decently big, decently shaped tree by the seaside—its sign towards the roadway, its sun-blistered green bench and tables, its shapely white windows and its row of upshooting hollyhock plants in the garden. A hedge separated it from a buttercup-yellow meadow, and beyond stood three poplars in a group against the sky, three exceptionally tall, graceful and harmonious poplars. It is hard to say what there was about them that made them so beautiful to Mr. Polly; but they seemed to him to touch a pleasant scene to a distinction almost divine. He remained admiring them for a long time. At last the need for coarser aesthetic satisfactions arose in him.
“Provinder,” he whispered, drawing near to the Inn. “Cold sirlion for choice. And nut-brown brew and wheaten bread.”
The nearer he came to the place the more he liked it. The windows on the ground floor were long and low, and they had pleasing red blinds. The green tables outside were agreeably ringed with memories of former drinks, and an extensive grape vine spread level branches across the whole front of the place. Against the wall was a broken oar, two boat-hooks and the stained and faded red cushions of a pleasure boat. One went up three steps to the glass-panelled door and peeped into a broad, low room with a bar and beer engine, behind which were many bright and helpful looking bottles against mirrors, and great and little pewter measures, and bottles fastened in brass wire upside down with their corks replaced by taps, and a white china cask labelled “Shrub,” and cigar boxes and boxes of cigarettes, and a couple of Toby jugs and a beautifully coloured hunting scene framed and glazed, showing the most elegant and beautiful people taking Piper’s Cherry Brandy, and cards such as the law requires about the dilution of spirits and the illegality of bringing children into bars, and satirical verses about swearing and asking for credit, and three very bright red-cheeked wax apples and a round-shaped clock.
But these were the mere background to the really pleasant thing in the spectacle, which was quite the plumpest woman Mr. Polly had ever seen, seated in an armchair in the midst of all these bottles and glasses and glittering things, peacefully and tranquilly, and without the slightest loss of dignity, asleep. Many people would have called her a fat woman, but Mr. Polly’s innate sense of epithet told him from the outset that plump was the word. She had shapely brows and a straight, well-shaped nose, kind lines and contentment about her mouth, and beneath it the jolly chins clustered like chubby little cherubim about the feet of an Assumptioning-Madonna. Her plumpness was firm and pink and wholesome, and her hands, dimpled at every joint, were clasped in front of her; she seemed as it were to embrace herself with infinite confidence and kindliness as one who knew herself good in substance, good in essence, and would show her gratitude to God by that ready acceptance of all that he had given her. Her head was a little on one side, not much, but just enough to speak of trustfulness, and rob her of the stiff effect of self-reliance. And she slept.
“My sort,” said Mr. Polly, and opened the door very softly, divided between the desire to enter and come nearer and an instinctive indisposition to break slumbers so manifestly sweet and satisfying.
She awoke with a start, and it amazed Mr. Polly to see swift terror flash into her eyes. Instantly it had gone again.
“Law!” she said, her face softening with relief, “I thought you were Jim.”
“I’m never Jim,” said Mr. Polly.
“You’ve got his sort of hat.”
“Ah!” said Mr. Polly, and leant over the bar.
“It just came into my head you was Jim,” said the plump lady, dismissed the topic and stood up. “I believe I was having forty winks,” she said, “if all the truth was told. What can I do for you?”
“Cold meat?” said Mr. Polly.
“There is cold meat,” the plump woman admitted.
“And room for it.”
The plump woman came and leant over the bar and regarded him judicially, but kindly. “There’s some cold boiled beef,” she said, and added: “A bit of crisp lettuce?”
“New mustard,” said Mr. Polly.
“And a tankard!”
They understood each other perfectly.
“Looking for work?” asked the plump woman.
“In a way,” said Mr. Polly.
They smiled like old friends.
Whatever the truth may be about love, there is certainly such a thing as friendship at first sight. They liked each other’s voices, they liked each other’s way of smiling and speaking.
“It’s such beautiful weather this spring,” said Mr. Polly, explaining everything.
“What sort of work do you want?” she asked.
“I’ve never properly thought that out,” said Mr. Polly. “I’ve been looking round—for Ideas.”
“Will you have your beef in the tap or outside? That’s the tap.”
Mr. Polly had a glimpse of an oaken settle. “In the tap will be handier for you,” he said.
“Hear that?” said the plump lady.
Presently the silence was broken by a distant howl. “Oooooo-ver!” “Eh?” she said.
“That’s the ferry. And there isn’t a ferryman.”
“Can you punt?”
“Well—pull the pole out before you reach the end of the punt, that’s all. Try.”
Mr. Polly went out again into the sunshine.
At times one can tell so much so briefly. Here are the facts then—bare. He found a punt and a pole, got across to the steps on the opposite side, picked up an elderly gentleman in an alpaca jacket and a pith helmet, cruised with him vaguely for twenty minutes, conveyed him tortuously into the midst of a thicket of forget-me-not spangled sedges, splashed some water-weed over him, hit him twice with the punt pole, and finally landed him, alarmed but abusive, in treacherous soil at the edge of a hay meadow about forty yards down stream, where he immediately got into difficulties with a noisy, aggressive little white dog, which was guardian of a jacket.
Mr. Polly returned in a complicated manner to his moorings.
He found the plump woman rather flushed and tearful, and seated at one of the green tables outside.
“I been laughing at you,” she said.
“What for?” asked Mr. Polly.
“I ain’t ’ad such a laugh since Jim come ’ome. When you ’it ’is ’ed, it ’urt my side.”
“It didn’t hurt his head—not particularly.”
She waved her head. “Did you charge him anything?”
“Gratis,” said Mr. Polly. “I never thought of it.”
The plump woman pressed her hands to her sides and laughed silently for a space. “You ought to have charged him sumpthing,” she said. “You better come and have your cold meat, before you do any more puntin’. You and me’ll get on together.”
Presently she came and stood watching him eat. “You eat better than you punt,” she said, and then, “I dessay you could learn to punt.”
“Wax to receive and marble to retain,” said Mr. Polly. “This beef is a Bit of All Right, Ma’m. I could have done differently if I hadn’t been punting on an empty stomach. There’s a lear feeling as the pole goes in—”
“I’ve never held with fasting,” said the plump woman.
“You want a ferryman?”
“I want an odd man about the place.”
“I’m odd, all right. What’s your wages?”
“Not much, but you get tips and pickings. I’ve a sort of feeling it would suit you.”
“I’ve a sort of feeling it would. What’s the duties? Fetch and carry? Ferry? Garden? Wash bottles? Ceteris paribus?”
“That’s about it,” said the fat woman.
“Give me a trial.”
“I’ve more than half a mind. Or I wouldn’t have said anything about it. I suppose you’re all right. You’ve got a sort of half-respectable look about you. I suppose you ’aven’t done anything.”
“Bit of Arson,” said Mr. Polly, as if he jested.
“So long as you haven’t the habit,” said the plump woman.
“My first time, M’am,” said Mr. Polly, munching his way through an excellent big leaf of lettuce. “And my last.”
“It’s all right if you haven’t been to prison,” said the plump woman. “It isn’t what a man’s happened to do makes ’im bad. We all happen to do things at times. It’s bringing it home to him, and spoiling his self-respect does the mischief. You don’t look a wrong ’un. ’Ave you been to prison?”
“Nor a reformatory? Nor any institution?”
“Not me. Do I look reformed?”
“Can you paint and carpenter a bit?”
“Well, I’m ripe for it.”
“Have a bit of cheese?”
“If I might.”
And the way she brought the cheese showed Mr. Polly that the business was settled in her mind.
He spent the afternoon exploring the premises of the Potwell Inn and learning the duties that might be expected of him, such as Stockholm tarring fences, digging potatoes, swabbing out boats, helping people land, embarking, landing and time-keeping for the hirers of two rowing boats and one Canadian canoe, baling out the said vessels and concealing their leaks and defects from prospective hirers, persuading inexperienced hirers to start down stream rather than up, repairing rowlocks and taking inventories of returning boats with a view to supplementary charges, cleaning boots, sweeping chimneys, house-painting, cleaning windows, sweeping out and sanding the tap and bar, cleaning pewter, washing glasses, turpentining woodwork, whitewashing generally, plumbing and engineering, repairing locks and clocks, waiting and tapster’s work generally, beating carpets and mats, cleaning bottles and saving corks, taking into the cellar, moving, tapping and connecting beer casks with their engines, blocking and destroying wasps’ nests, doing forestry with several trees, drowning superfluous kittens, and dog-fancying as required, assisting in the rearing of ducklings and the care of various poultry, bee-keeping, stabling, baiting and grooming horses and asses, cleaning and “garing” motor cars and bicycles, inflating tires and repairing punctures, recovering the bodies of drowned persons from the river as required, and assisting people in trouble in the water, first-aid and sympathy, improvising and superintending a bathing station for visitors, attending inquests and funerals in the interests of the establishment, scrubbing floors and all the ordinary duties of a scullion, the ferry, chasing hens and goats from the adjacent cottages out of the garden, making up paths and superintending drainage, gardening generally, delivering bottled beer and soda water syphons in the neighbourhood, running miscellaneous errands, removing drunken and offensive persons from the premises by tact or muscle as occasion required, keeping in with the local policemen, defending the premises in general and the orchard in particular from depredators....
“Can but try it,” said Mr. Polly towards tea time. “When there’s nothing else on hand I suppose I might do a bit of fishing.”
Mr. Polly was particularly charmed by the ducklings.
They were piping about among the vegetables in the company of their foster mother, and as he and the plump woman came down the garden path the little creatures mobbed them, and ran over their boots and in between Mr. Polly’s legs, and did their best to be trodden upon and killed after the manner of ducklings all the world over. Mr. Polly had never been near young ducklings before, and their extreme blondness and the delicate completeness of their feet and beaks filled him with admiration. It is open to question whether there is anything more friendly in the world than a very young duckling. It was with the utmost difficulty that he tore himself away to practise punting, with the plump woman coaching from the bank. Punting he found was difficult, but not impossible, and towards four o’clock he succeeded in conveying a second passenger across the sundering flood from the inn to the unknown.
As he returned, slowly indeed, but now one might almost say surely, to the peg to which the punt was moored, he became aware of a singularly delightful human being awaiting him on the bank. She stood with her legs very wide apart, her hands behind her back, and her head a little on one side, watching his gestures with an expression of disdainful interest. She had black hair and brown legs and a buff short frock and very intelligent eyes. And when he had reached a sufficient proximity she remarked: “Hello!”
“Hello,” said Mr. Polly, and saved himself in the nick of time from disaster.
“Silly,” said the young lady, and Mr. Polly lunged nearer.
“What are you called?”
“Then I’m Alfred. But I meant to be Polly.”
“I was first.”
“All right. I’m going to be the ferryman.”
“I see. You’ll have to punt better.”
“You should have seen me early in the afternoon.”
“I can imagine it.... I’ve seen the others.”
“What others?” Mr. Polly had landed now and was fastening up the punt.
“Whaim has scooted.”
“He conies and scoots them. He’ll scoot you too, I expect.”
A mysterious shadow seemed to fall athwart the sunshine and pleasantness of the Potwell Inn.
“I’m not a scooter,” said Mr. Polly.
“Uncle Jim is.”
She whistled a little flatly for a moment, and threw small stones at a clump of meadow-sweet that sprang from the bank. Then she remarked:
“When Uncle Jim comes back he’ll cut your insides out.... P’raps, very likely, he’ll let me see.”
There was a pause.
“Who’s Uncle Jim?” Mr. Polly asked in a faded voice.
“Don’t you know who Uncle Jim is? He’ll show you. He’s a scorcher, is Uncle Jim. He only came back just a little time ago, and he’s scooted three men. He don’t like strangers about, don’t Uncle Jim. He can swear. He’s going to teach me, soon as I can whissle properly.”
“Teach you to swear!” cried Mr. Polly, horrified.
“And spit,” said the little girl proudly. “He says I’m the gamest little beast he ever came across—ever.”
For the first time in his life it seemed to Mr. Polly that he had come across something sheerly dreadful. He stared at the pretty thing of flesh and spirit in front of him, lightly balanced on its stout little legs and looking at him with eyes that had still to learn the expression of either disgust or fear.
“I say,” said Mr. Polly, “how old are you?”
“Nine,” said the little girl.
She turned away and reflected. Truth compelled her to add one other statement.
“He’s not what I should call handsome, not Uncle Jim,” she said. “But he’s a scorcher and no mistake.... Gramma don’t like him.”
Mr. Polly found the plump woman in the big bricked kitchen lighting a fire for tea. He went to the root of the matter at once.
“I say,” he asked, “who’s Uncle Jim?”
The plump woman blanched and stood still for a moment. A stick fell out of the bundle in her hand unheeded.
“That little granddaughter of mine been saying things?” she asked faintly.
“Bits of things,” said Mr. Polly.
“Well, I suppose I must tell you sooner or later. He’s—. It’s Jim. He’s the Drorback to this place, that’s what he is. The Drorback. I hoped you mightn’t hear so soon.... Very likely he’s gone.”
“She don’t seem to think so.”
“’E ’asn’t been near the place these two weeks and more,” said the plump woman.
“But who is he?”
“I suppose I got to tell you,” said the plump woman.
“She says he scoots people,” Mr. Polly remarked after a pause.
“He’s my own sister’s son.” The plump woman watched the crackling fire for a space. “I suppose I got to tell you,” she repeated.
She softened towards tears. “I try not to think of it, and night and day he’s haunting me. I try not to think of it. I’ve been for easy-going all my life. But I’m that worried and afraid, with death and ruin threatened and evil all about me! I don’t know what to do! My own sister’s son, and me a widow woman and ’elpless against his doin’s!”
She put down the sticks she held upon the fender, and felt for her handkerchief. She began to sob and talk quickly.
“I wouldn’t mind nothing else half so much if he’d leave that child alone. But he goes talking to her—if I leave her a moment he’s talking to her, teaching her words and giving her ideas!”
“That’s a Bit Thick,” said Mr. Polly.
“Thick!” cried the plump woman; “it’s ’orrible! And what am I to do? He’s been here three times now, six days and a week and a part of a week, and I pray to God night and day he may never come again. Praying! Back he’s come sure as fate. He takes my money and he takes my things. He won’t let no man stay here to protect me or do the boats or work the ferry. The ferry’s getting a scandal. They stand and shout and scream and use language.... If I complain they’ll say I’m helpless to manage here, they’ll take away my license, out I shall go—and it’s all the living I can get—and he knows it, and he plays on it, and he don’t care. And here I am. I’d send the child away, but I got nowhere to send the child. I buys him off when it comes to that, and back he comes, worse than ever, prowling round and doing evil. And not a soul to help me. Not a soul! I just hoped there might be a day or so. Before he comes back again. I was just hoping—I’m the sort that hopes.”
Mr. Polly was reflecting on the flaws and drawbacks that seem to be inseparable from all the more agreeable things in life.
“Biggish sort of man, I expect?” asked Mr. Polly, trying to get the situation in all its bearings.
But the plump woman did not heed him. She was going on with her fire-making, and retailing in disconnected fragments the fearfulness of Uncle Jim.
“There was always something a bit wrong with him,” she said, “but nothing you mightn’t have hoped for, not till they took him and carried him off and reformed him....
“He was cruel to the hens and chickings, it’s true, and stuck a knife into another boy, but then I’ve seen him that nice to a cat, nobody could have been kinder. I’m sure he didn’t do no ’arm to that cat whatever anyone tries to make out of it. I’d never listen to that.... It was that reformatory ruined him. They put him along of a lot of London boys full of ideas of wickedness, and because he didn’t mind pain—and he don’t, I will admit, try as I would—they made him think himself a hero. Them boys laughed at the teachers they set over them, laughed and mocked at them—and I don’t suppose they was the best teachers in the world; I don’t suppose, and I don’t suppose anyone sensible does suppose that everyone who goes to be a teacher or a chapl’in or a warder in a Reformatory Home goes and changes right away into an Angel of Grace from Heaven—and Oh, Lord! where was I?”
“What did they send him to the Reformatory for?”
“Playing truant and stealing. He stole right enough—stole the money from an old woman, and what was I to do when it came to the trial but say what I knew. And him like a viper a-looking at me—more like a viper than a human boy. He leans on the bar and looks at me. ’All right, Aunt Flo,’ he says, just that and nothing more. Time after time, I’ve dreamt of it, and now he’s come. ‘They’ve Reformed me,’ he says, ’and made me a devil, and devil I mean to be to you. So out with it,’ he says.”
“What did you give him last time?” asked Mr. Polly.
“Three golden pounds,” said the plump woman.
“‘That won’t last very long,’ he says. ’But there ain’t no hurry. I’ll be back in a week about.’ If I wasn’t one of the hoping sort—”
She left the sentence unfinished.
Mr. Polly reflected. “What sort of a size is he?” he asked. “I’m not one of your Herculaceous sort, if you mean that. Nothing very wonderful bicepitally.”
“You’ll scoot,” said the plump woman with conviction rather than bitterness. “You’d better scoot now, and I’ll try and find some money for him to go away again when he comes. It ain’t reasonable to expect you to do anything but scoot. But I suppose it’s the way of a woman in trouble to try and get help from a man, and hope and hope. I’m the hoping sort.”
“How long’s he been about?” asked Mr. Polly, ignoring his own outlook.
“Three months it is come the seventh since he come in by that very back door—and I hadn’t set eyes on him for seven long years. He stood in the door watchin’ me, and suddenly he let off a yelp—like a dog, and there he was grinning at the fright he’d given me. ‘Good old Aunty Flo,’ he says, ‘ain’t you dee-lighted to see me?’ he says, ‘now I’m Reformed.’”
The plump lady went to the sink and filled the kettle.
“I never did like ’im,” she said, standing at the sink. “And seeing him there, with his teeth all black and broken—. P’raps I didn’t give him much of a welcome at first. Not what would have been kind to him. ‘Lord!’ I said, ‘it’s Jim.’”
“‘It’s Jim,’ he said. ‘Like a bad shillin’—like a damned bad shilling. Jim and trouble. You all of you wanted me Reformed and now you got me Reformed. I’m a Reformatory Reformed Character, warranted all right and turned out as such. Ain’t you going to ask me in, Aunty dear?’
“‘Come in,’ I said, ’I won’t have it said I wasn’t ready to be kind to you!’
“He comes in and shuts the door. Down he sits in that chair. ’I come to torment you!’ he says, ‘you Old Sumpthing!’ and begins at me.... No human being could ever have been called such things before. It made me cry out. ‘And now,’ he says, ’just to show I ain’t afraid of ’urting you,’ he says, and ups and twists my wrist.”
Mr. Polly gasped.
“I could stand even his vi’lence,” said the plump woman, “if it wasn’t for the child.”
Mr. Polly went to the kitchen window and surveyed his namesake, who was away up the garden path with her hands behind her back, and whisps of black hair in disorder about her little face, thinking, thinking profoundly, about ducklings.
“You two oughtn’t to be left,” he said.
The plump woman stared at his back with hard hope in her eyes.
“I don’t see that it’s my affair,” said Mr. Polly.
The plump woman resumed her business with the kettle.
“I’d like to have a look at him before I go,” said Mr. Polly, thinking aloud. And added, “somehow. Not my business, of course.”
“Lord!” he cried with a start at a noise in the bar, “who’s that?”
“Only a customer,” said the plump woman.
Mr. Polly made no rash promises, and thought a great deal.
“It seems a good sort of Crib,” he said, and added, “for a chap who’s looking for trouble.”
But he stayed on and did various things out of the list I have already given, and worked the ferry, and it was four days before he saw anything of Uncle Jim. And so resistent is the human mind to things not yet experienced that he could easily have believed in that time that there was no such person in the world as Uncle Jim. The plump woman, after her one outbreak of confidence, ignored the subject, and little Polly seemed to have exhausted her impressions in her first communication, and engaged her mind now with a simple directness in the study and subjugation of the new human being Heaven had sent into her world. The first unfavourable impression of his punting was soon effaced; he could nickname ducklings very amusingly, create boats out of wooden splinters, and stalk and fly from imaginary tigers in the orchard with a convincing earnestness that was surely beyond the power of any other human being. She conceded at last that he should be called Mr. Polly, in honour of her, Miss Polly, even as he desired.
Uncle Jim turned up in the twilight.
Uncle Jim appeared with none of the disruptive violence Mr. Polly had dreaded. He came quite softly. Mr. Polly was going down the lane behind the church that led to the Potwell Inn after posting a letter to the lime-juice people at the post-office. He was walking slowly, after his habit, and thinking discursively. With a sudden tightening of the muscles he became aware of a figure walking noiselessly beside him. His first impression was of a face singularly broad above and with a wide empty grin as its chief feature below, of a slouching body and dragging feet.
“Arf a mo’,” said the figure, as if in response to his start, and speaking in a hoarse whisper. “Arf a mo’, mister. You the noo bloke at the Potwell Inn?”
Mr. Polly felt evasive. “’Spose I am,” he replied hoarsely, and quickened his pace.
“Arf a mo’,” said Uncle Jim, taking his arm. “We ain’t doing a (sanguinary) Marathon. It ain’t a (decorated) cinder track. I want a word with you, mister. See?”
Mr. Polly wriggled his arm free and stopped. “What is it?” he asked, and faced the terror.
“I jest want a (decorated) word wiv you. See?—just a friendly word or two. Just to clear up any blooming errors. That’s all I want. No need to be so (richly decorated) proud, if you are the noo bloke at Potwell Inn. Not a bit of it. See?”
Uncle Jim was certainly not a handsome person. He was short, shorter than Mr. Polly, with long arms and lean big hands, a thin and wiry neck stuck out of his grey flannel shirt and supported a big head that had something of the snake in the convergent lines of its broad knotty brow, meanly proportioned face and pointed chin. His almost toothless mouth seemed a cavern in the twilight. Some accident had left him with one small and active and one large and expressionless reddish eye, and wisps of straight hair strayed from under the blue cricket cap he wore pulled down obliquely over the latter. He spat between his teeth and wiped his mouth untidily with the soft side of his fist.
“You got to blurry well shift,” he said. “See?”
“Shift!” said Mr. Polly. “How?”
“’Cos the Potwell Inn’s my beat. See?”
Mr. Polly had never felt less witty. “How’s it your beat?” he asked.
Uncle Jim thrust his face forward and shook his open hand, bent like a claw, under Mr. Polly’s nose. “Not your blooming business,” he said. “You got to shift.”
“S’pose I don’t,” said Mr. Polly.
“You got to shift.”
The tone of Uncle Jim’s voice became urgent and confidential.
“You don’t know who you’re up against,” he said. “It’s a kindness I’m doing to warn you. See? I’m just one of those blokes who don’t stick at things, see? I don’t stick at nuffin’.”
Mr. Polly’s manner became detached and confidential—as though the matter and the speaker interested him greatly, but didn’t concern him over-much. “What do you think you’ll do?” he asked.
“If you don’t clear out?”
“Gaw!” said Uncle Jim. “You’d better. ’Ere!”
He gripped Mr. Polly’s wrist with a grip of steel, and in an instant Mr. Polly understood the relative quality of their muscles. He breathed, an uninspiring breath, into Mr. Polly’s face.
“What won’t I do?” he said. “Once I start in on you.”
He paused, and the night about them seemed to be listening. “I’ll make a mess of you,” he said in his hoarse whisper. “I’ll do you—injuries. I’ll ’urt you. I’ll kick you ugly, see? I’ll ’urt you in ’orrible ways—’orrible, ugly ways....”
He scrutinised Mr. Polly’s face.
“You’ll cry,” he said, “to see yourself. See? Cry you will.”
“You got no right,” began Mr. Polly.
“Right!” His note was fierce. “Ain’t the old woman me aunt?”
He spoke still closer. “I’ll make a gory mess of you. I’ll cut bits orf you—”
He receded a little. “I got no quarrel with you,” he said.
“It’s too late to go to-night,” said Mr. Polly.
“I’ll be round to-morrer—’bout eleven. See? And if I finds you—”
He produced a blood-curdling oath.
“H’m,” said Mr. Polly, trying to keep things light. “We’ll consider your suggestions.”
“You better,” said Uncle Jim, and suddenly, noiselessly, was going.
His whispering voice sank until Mr. Polly could hear only the dim fragments of sentences. “Orrible things to you—’orrible things.... Kick yer ugly.... Cut yer—liver out... spread it all about, I will.... Outing doos. See? I don’t care a dead rat one way or the uvver.”
And with a curious twisting gesture of the arm Uncle Jim receded until his face was a still, dim thing that watched, and the black shadows of the hedge seemed to have swallowed up his body altogether.
Next morning about half-past ten Mr. Polly found himself seated under a clump of fir trees by the roadside and about three miles and a half from the Potwell Inn. He was by no means sure whether he was taking a walk to clear his mind or leaving that threat-marred Paradise for good and all. His reason pointed a lean, unhesitating finger along the latter course.
For after all, the thing was not his quarrel.
That agreeable plump woman, agreeable, motherly, comfortable as she might be, wasn’t his affair; that child with the mop of black hair who combined so magically the charm of mouse and butterfly and flitting bird, who was daintier than a flower and softer than a peach, was no concern of his. Good heavens! what were they to him? Nothing!...
Uncle Jim, of course, had a claim, a sort of claim.
If it came to duty and chucking up this attractive, indolent, observant, humorous, tramping life, there were those who had a right to him, a legitimate right, a prior claim on his protection and chivalry.
Why not listen to the call of duty and go back to Miriam now?...
He had had a very agreeable holiday....
And while Mr. Polly sat thinking these things as well as he could, he knew that if only he dared to look up the heavens had opened and the clear judgment on his case was written across the sky.
He knew—he knew now as much as a man can know of life. He knew he had to fight or perish.
Life had never been so clear to him before. It had always been a confused, entertaining spectacle, he had responded to this impulse and that, seeking agreeable and entertaining things, evading difficult and painful things. Such is the way of those who grow up to a life that has neither danger nor honour in its texture. He had been muddled and wrapped about and entangled like a creature born in the jungle who has never seen sea or sky. Now he had come out of it suddenly into a great exposed place. It was as if God and Heaven waited over him and all the earth was expectation.
“Not my business,” said Mr. Polly, speaking aloud. “Where the devil do I come in?”
And again, with something between a whine and a snarl in his voice, “not my blasted business!”
His mind seemed to have divided itself into several compartments, each with its own particular discussion busily in progress, and quite regardless of the others. One was busy with the detailed interpretation of the phrase “Kick you ugly.” There’s a sort of French wrestling in which you use and guard against feet. Watch the man’s eye, and as his foot comes up, grip and over he goes—at your mercy if you use the advantage right. But how do you use the advantage rightly?
When he thought of Uncle Jim the inside feeling of his body faded away rapidly to a blank discomfort....
“Old cadger! She hadn’t no business to drag me into her quarrels. Ought to go to the police and ask for help! Dragging me into a quarrel that don’t concern me.”
“Wish I’d never set eyes on the rotten inn!”
The reality of the case arched over him like the vault of the sky, as plain as the sweet blue heavens above and the wide spread of hill and valley about him. Man comes into life to seek and find his sufficient beauty, to serve it, to win and increase it, to fight for it, to face anything and dare anything for it, counting death as nothing so long as the dying eyes still turn to it. And fear, and dulness and indolence and appetite, which indeed are no more than fear’s three crippled brothers who make ambushes and creep by night, are against him, to delay him, to hold him off, to hamper and beguile and kill him in that quest. He had but to lift his eyes to see all that, as much a part of his world as the driving clouds and the bending grass, but he kept himself downcast, a grumbling, inglorious, dirty, fattish little tramp, full of dreads and quivering excuses.
“Why the hell was I ever born?” he said, with the truth almost winning him.
What do you do when a dirty man who smells, gets you down and under in the dirt and dust with a knee below your diaphragm and a large hairy hand squeezing your windpipe tighter and tighter in a quarrel that isn’t, properly speaking, yours?
“If I had a chance against him—” protested Mr. Polly.
“It’s no Good, you see,” said Mr. Polly.
He stood up as though his decision was made, and was for an instant struck still by doubt.
There lay the road before him going this way to the east and that to the west.
Westward, one hour away now, was the Potwell Inn. Already things might be happening there....
Eastward was the wise man’s course, a road dipping between hedges to a hop garden and a wood and presently no doubt reaching an inn, a picturesque church, perhaps, a village and fresh company. The wise man’s course. Mr. Polly saw himself going along it, and tried to see himself going along it with all the self-applause a wise man feels. But somehow it wouldn’t come like that. The wise man fell short of happiness for all his wisdom. The wise man had a paunch and round shoulders and red ears and excuses. It was a pleasant road, and why the wise man should not go along it merry and singing, full of summer happiness, was a miracle to Mr. Polly’s mind, but confound it! the fact remained, the figure went slinking—slinking was the only word for it—and would not go otherwise than slinking. He turned his eyes westward as if for an explanation, and if the figure was no longer ignoble, the prospect was appalling.
“One kick in the stummick would settle a chap like me,” said Mr. Polly.
“Oh, God!” cried Mr. Polly, and lifted his eyes to heaven, and said for the last time in that struggle, “It isn’t my affair!”
And so saying he turned his face towards the Potwell Inn.
He went back neither halting nor hastening in his pace after this last decision, but with a mind feverishly busy.
“If I get killed, I get killed, and if he gets killed I get hung. Don’t seem just somehow.
“Don’t suppose I shall frighten him off.”
The private war between Mr. Polly and Uncle Jim for the possession of the Potwell Inn fell naturally into three chief campaigns. There was first of all the great campaign which ended in the triumphant eviction of Uncle Jim from the inn premises, there came next after a brief interval the futile invasions of the premises by Uncle Jim that culminated in the Battle of the Dead Eel, and after some months of involuntary truce there was the last supreme conflict of the Night Surprise. Each of these campaigns merits a section to itself.
Mr. Polly re-entered the inn discreetly. He found the plump woman seated in her bar, her eyes a-stare, her face white and wet with tears. “O God!” she was saying over and over again. “O God!” The air was full of a spirituous reek, and on the sanded boards in front of the bar were the fragments of a broken bottle and an overturned glass.
She turned her despair at the sound of his entry, and despair gave place to astonishment.
“You come back!” she said.
“Ra-ther,” said Mr. Polly.
“He’s—he’s mad drunk and looking for her.”
“Where is she?”
“Haven’t you sent to the police?”
“No one to send.”
“I’ll see to it,” said Mr. Polly. “Out this way?”
He went to the crinkly paned window and peered out. Uncle Jim was coming down the garden path towards the house, his hands in his pockets and singing hoarsely. Mr. Polly remembered afterwards with pride and amazement that he felt neither faint nor rigid. He glanced round him, seized a bottle of beer by the neck as an improvised club, and went out by the garden door. Uncle Jim stopped amazed. His brain did not instantly rise to the new posture of things. “You!” he cried, and stopped for a moment. “You—scoot!”
“Your job,” said Mr. Polly, and advanced some paces.
Uncle Jim stood swaying with wrathful astonishment and then darted forward with clutching hands. Mr. Polly felt that if his antagonist closed he was lost, and smote with all his force at the ugly head before him. Smash went the bottle, and Uncle Jim staggered, half-stunned by the blow and blinded with beer.
The lapses and leaps of the human mind are for ever mysterious. Mr. Polly had never expected that bottle to break. In the instant he felt disarmed and helpless. Before him was Uncle Jim, infuriated and evidently still coming on, and for defence was nothing but the neck of a bottle.
For a time our Mr. Polly has figured heroic. Now comes the fall again; he sounded abject terror; he dropped that ineffectual scrap of glass and turned and fled round the corner of the house.
“Bolls!” came the thick voice of the enemy behind him as one who accepts a challenge, and bleeding, but indomitable, Uncle Jim entered the house.
“Bolls!” he said, surveying the bar. “Fightin’ with bolls! I’ll show ’im fightin’ with bolls!”
Uncle Jim had learnt all about fighting with bottles in the Reformatory Home. Regardless of his terror-stricken aunt he ranged among the bottled beer and succeeded after one or two failures in preparing two bottles to his satisfaction by knocking off the bottoms, and gripping them dagger-wise by the necks. So prepared, he went forth again to destroy Mr. Polly.
Mr. Polly, freed from the sense of urgent pursuit, had halted beyond the raspberry canes and rallied his courage. The sense of Uncle Jim victorious in the house restored his manhood. He went round by the outhouses to the riverside, seeking a weapon, and found an old paddle boat hook. With this he smote Uncle Jim as he emerged by the door of the tap. Uncle Jim, blaspheming dreadfully and with dire stabbing intimations in either hand, came through the splintering paddle like a circus rider through a paper hoop, and once more Mr. Polly dropped his weapon and fled.
A careless observer watching him sprint round and round the inn in front of the lumbering and reproachful pursuit of Uncle Jim might have formed an altogether erroneous estimate of the issue of the campaign. Certain compensating qualities of the very greatest military value were appearing in Mr. Polly even as he ran; if Uncle Jim had strength and brute courage and the rich toughening experience a Reformatory Home affords, Mr. Polly was nevertheless sober, more mobile and with a mind now stimulated to an almost incredible nimbleness. So that he not only gained on Uncle Jim, but thought what use he might make of this advantage. The word “strategious” flamed red across the tumult of his mind. As he came round the house for the third time, he darted suddenly into the yard, swung the door to behind himself and bolted it, seized the zinc pig’s pail that stood by the entrance to the kitchen and had it neatly and resonantly over Uncle Jim’s head as he came belatedly in round the outhouse on the other side. One of the splintered bottles jabbed Mr. Polly’s ear—at the time it seemed of no importance—and then Uncle Jim was down and writhing dangerously and noisily upon the yard tiles, with his head still in the pig pail and his bottles gone to splinters, and Mr. Polly was fastening the kitchen door against him.
“Can’t go on like this for ever,” said Mr. Polly, whooping for breath, and selecting a weapon from among the brooms that stood behind the kitchen door.
Uncle Jim was losing his head. He was up and kicking the door and bellowing unamiable proposals and invitations, so that a strategist emerging silently by the tap door could locate him without difficulty, steal upon him unawares and—!
But before that felling blow could be delivered Uncle Jim’s ear had caught a footfall, and he turned. Mr. Polly quailed and lowered his broom,—a fatal hesitation.
“Now I got you!” cried Uncle Jim, dancing forward in a disconcerting zigzag.
He rushed to close, and Mr. Polly stopped him neatly, as it were a miracle, with the head of the broom across his chest. Uncle Jim seized the broom with both hands. “Lea-go!” he said, and tugged. Mr. Polly shook his head, tugged, and showed pale, compressed lips. Both tugged. Then Uncle Jim tried to get round the end of the broom; Mr. Polly circled away. They began to circle about one another, both tugging hard, both intensely watchful of the slightest initiative on the part of the other. Mr. Polly wished brooms were longer, twelve or thirteen feet, for example; Uncle Jim was clearly for shortness in brooms. He wasted breath in saying what was to happen shortly, sanguinary, oriental soul-blenching things, when the broom no longer separated them. Mr. Polly thought he had never seen an uglier person. Suddenly Uncle Jim flashed into violent activity, but alcohol slows movement, and Mr. Polly was equal to him. Then Uncle Jim tried jerks, and for a terrible instant seemed to have the broom out of Mr. Polly’s hands. But Mr. Polly recovered it with the clutch of a drowning man. Then Uncle Jim drove suddenly at Mr. Polly’s midriff, but again Mr. Polly was ready and swept him round in a circle. Then suddenly a wild hope filled Mr. Polly. He saw the river was very near, the post to which the punt was tied not three yards away. With a wild yell, he sent the broom home into his antagonist’s ribs.
“Woosh!” he cried, as the resistance gave.
“Oh! Gaw!” said Uncle Jim, going backward helplessly, and Mr. Polly thrust hard and abandoned the broom to the enemy’s despairing clutch.
Splash! Uncle Jim was in the water and Mr. Polly had leapt like a cat aboard the ferry punt and grasped the pole.
Up came Uncle Jim spluttering and dripping. “You (unprofitable matter, and printing it would lead to a censorship of novels)! You know I got a weak chess!”
The pole took him in the throat and drove him backward and downwards.
“Lea go!” cried Uncle Jim, staggering and with real terror in his once awful eyes.
Splash! Down he fell backwards into a frothing mass of water with Mr. Polly jabbing at him. Under water he turned round and came up again as if in flight towards the middle of the river. Directly his head reappeared Mr. Polly had him between the shoulders and under again, bubbling thickly. A hand clutched and disappeared.
It was stupendous! Mr. Polly had discovered the heel of Achilles. Uncle Jim had no stomach for cold water. The broom floated away, pitching gently on the swell. Mr. Polly, infuriated with victory, thrust Uncle Jim under again, and drove the punt round on its chain in such a manner that when Uncle Jim came up for the fourth time—and now he was nearly out of his depth, too buoyed up to walk and apparently nearly helpless,—Mr. Polly, fortunately for them both, could not reach him. Uncle Jim made the clumsy gestures of those who struggle insecurely in the water. “Keep out,” said Mr. Polly. Uncle Jim with a great effort got a footing, emerged until his arm-pits were out of water, until his waistcoat buttons showed, one by one, till scarcely two remained, and made for the camp sheeting.
“Keep out!” cried Mr. Polly, and leapt off the punt and followed the movements of his victim along the shore.
“I tell you I got a weak chess,” said Uncle Jim, moistly. “This ain’t fair fightin’.”
“Keep out!” said Mr. Polly.
“This ain’t fair fightin’,” said Uncle Jim, almost weeping, and all his terrors had gone.
“Keep out!” said Mr. Polly, with an accurately poised pole.
“I tell you I got to land, you Fool,” said Uncle Jim, with a sort of despairing wrathfulness, and began moving down-stream.
“You keep out,” said Mr. Polly in parallel movement. “Don’t you ever land on this place again!...”
Slowly, argumentatively, and reluctantly, Uncle Jim waded down-stream. He tried threats, he tried persuasion, he even tried a belated note of pathos; Mr. Polly remained inexorable, if in secret a little perplexed as to the outcome of the situation. “This cold’s getting to my marrer!” said Uncle Jim.
“You want cooling. You keep out in it,” said Mr. Polly.
They came round the bend into sight of Nicholson’s ait, where the backwater runs down to the Potwell Mill. And there, after much parley and several feints, Uncle Jim made a desperate effort and struggled into clutch of the overhanging osiers on the island, and so got out of the water with the millstream between them. He emerged dripping and muddy and vindictive. “By Gaw!” he said. “I’ll skin you for this!”
“You keep off or I’ll do worse to you,” said Mr. Polly.
The spirit was out of Uncle Jim for the time, and he turned away to struggle through the osiers towards the mill, leaving a shining trail of water among the green-grey stems.
Mr. Polly returned slowly and thoughtfully to the inn, and suddenly his mind began to bubble with phrases. The plump woman stood at the top of the steps that led up to the inn door to greet him.
“Law!” she cried as he drew near, “’asn’t ’e killed you?”
“Do I look like it?” said Mr. Polly.
“But where’s Jim?”
“’E was mad drunk and dangerous!”
“I put him in the river,” said Mr. Polly. “That toned down his alcolaceous frenzy! I gave him a bit of a doing altogether.”
“Hain’t he ’urt you?”
“Not a bit of it!”
“Then what’s all that blood beside your ear?”
Mr. Polly felt. “Quite a cut! Funny how one overlooks things! Heated moments! He must have done that when he jabbed about with those bottles. Hullo, Kiddy! You venturing downstairs again?”
“Ain’t he killed you?” asked the little girl.
“I wish I’d seen more of the fighting.”
“All I saw was you running round the house and Uncle Jim after you.”
There was a little pause. “I was leading him on,” said Mr. Polly.
“Someone’s shouting at the ferry,” she said.
“Right O. But you won’t see any more of Uncle Jim for a bit. We’ve been having a conversazione about that.”
“I believe it is Uncle Jim,” said the little girl.
“Then he can wait,” said Mr. Polly shortly.
He turned round and listened for the words that drifted across from the little figure on the opposite bank. So far as he could judge, Uncle Jim was making an appointment for the morrow. He replied with a defiant movement of the punt pole. The little figure was convulsed for a moment and then went on its way upstream—fiercely.
So it was the first campaign ended in an insecure victory.
The next day was Wednesday and a slack day for the Potwell Inn. It was a hot, close day, full of the murmuring of bees. One or two people crossed by the ferry, an elaborately equipped fisherman stopped for cold meat and dry ginger ale in the bar parlour, some haymakers came and drank beer for an hour, and afterwards sent jars and jugs by a boy to be replenished; that was all. Mr. Polly had risen early and was busy about the place meditating upon the probable tactics of Uncle Jim. He was no longer strung up to the desperate pitch of the first encounter. But he was grave and anxious. Uncle Jim had shrunken, as all antagonists that are boldly faced shrink, after the first battle, to the negotiable, the vulnerable. Formidable he was no doubt, but not invincible. He had, under Providence, been defeated once, and he might be defeated altogether.
Mr. Polly went about the place considering the militant possibilities of pacific things, pokers, copper sticks, garden implements, kitchen knives, garden nets, barbed wire, oars, clothes lines, blankets, pewter pots, stockings and broken bottles. He prepared a club with a stocking and a bottle inside upon the best East End model. He swung it round his head once, broke an outhouse window with a flying fragment of glass, and ruined the stocking beyond all darning. He developed a subtle scheme with the cellar flap as a sort of pitfall, but he rejected it finally because (A) it might entrap the plump woman, and (B) he had no use whatever for Uncle Jim in the cellar. He determined to wire the garden that evening, burglar fashion, against the possibilities of a night attack.
Towards two o’clock in the afternoon three young men arrived in a capacious boat from the direction of Lammam, and asked permission to camp in the paddock. It was given all the more readily by Mr. Polly because he perceived in their proximity a possible check upon the self-expression of Uncle Jim. But he did not foresee and no one could have foreseen that Uncle Jim, stealing unawares upon the Potwell Inn in the late afternoon, armed with a large rough-hewn stake, should have mistaken the bending form of one of those campers—who was pulling a few onions by permission in the garden—for Mr. Polly’s, and crept upon it swiftly and silently and smitten its wide invitation unforgettably and unforgiveably. It was an error impossible to explain; the resounding whack went up to heaven, the cry of amazement, and Mr. Polly emerged from the inn armed with the frying-pan he was cleaning, to take this reckless assailant in the rear. Uncle Jim, realising his error, fled blaspheming into the arms of the other two campers, who were returning from the village with butcher’s meat and groceries. They caught him, they smacked his face with steak and punched him with a bursting parcel of lump sugar, they held him though he bit them, and their idea of punishment was to duck him. They were hilarious, strong young stockbrokers’ clerks, Territorials and seasoned boating men; they ducked him as though it was romping, and all that Mr. Polly had to do was to pick up lumps of sugar for them and wipe them on his sleeve and put them on a plate, and explain that Uncle Jim was a notorious bad character and not quite right in his head.
“Got a regular obsession that the Missis is his Aunt,” said Mr. Polly, expanding it. “Perfect noosance he is.”
But he caught a glance of Uncle Jim’s eye as he receded before the campers’ urgency that boded ill for him, and in the night he had a disagreeable idea that perhaps his luck might not hold for the third occasion.
That came soon enough. So soon, indeed, as the campers had gone.
Thursday was the early closing day at Lammam, and next to Sunday the busiest part of the week at the Potwell Inn. Sometimes as many as six boats all at once would be moored against the ferry punt and hiring rowboats. People could either have a complete tea, a complete tea with jam, cake and eggs, a kettle of boiling water and find the rest, or refreshments á la carte, as they chose. They sat about, but usually the boiling water-ers had a delicacy about using the tables and grouped themselves humbly on the ground. The complete tea-ers with jam and eggs got the best tablecloth on the table nearest the steps that led up to the glass-panelled door. The groups about the lawn were very satisfying to Mr. Polly’s sense of amenity. To the right were the complete tea-ers with everything heart could desire, then a small group of three young men in remarkable green and violet and pale-blue shirts, and two girls in mauve and yellow blouses with common teas and gooseberry jam at the green clothless table, then on the grass down by the pollard willow a small family of hot water-ers with a hamper, a little troubled by wasps in their jam from the nest in the tree and all in mourning, but happy otherwise, and on the lawn to the right a ginger beer lot of ’prentices without their collars and very jocular and happy. The young people in the rainbow shirts and blouses formed the centre of interest; they were under the leadership of a gold-spectacled senior with a fluting voice and an air of mystery; he ordered everything, and showed a peculiar knowledge of the qualities of the Potwell jams, preferring gooseberry with much insistence. Mr. Polly watched him, christened him the “benifluous influence,” glanced at the ’prentices and went inside and down into the cellar in order to replenish the stock of stone ginger beer which the plump woman had allowed to run low during the preoccupations of the campaign. It was in the cellar that he first became aware of the return of Uncle Jim. He became aware of him as a voice, a voice not only hoarse, but thick, as voices thicken under the influence of alcohol.
“Where’s that muddy-faced mongrel?” cried Uncle Jim. “Let ’im come out to me! Where’s that blighted whisp with the punt pole—I got a word to say to ’im. Come out of it, you pot-bellied chunk of dirtiness, you! Come out and ’ave your ugly face wiped. I got a Thing for you.... ’Ear me?
“’E’s ’iding, that’s what ’e’s doing,” said the voice of Uncle Jim, dropping for a moment to sorrow, and then with a great increment of wrathfulness: “Come out of my nest, you blinking cuckoo, you, or I’ll cut your silly insides out! Come out of it—you pock-marked rat! Stealing another man’s ’ome away from ’im! Come out and look me in the face, you squinting son of a Skunk!...”
Mr. Polly took the ginger beer and went thoughtfully upstairs to the bar.
“’E’s back,” said the plump woman as he appeared. “I knew ’e’d come back.”
“I heard him,” said Mr. Polly, and looked about. “Just gimme the old poker handle that’s under the beer engine.”
The door opened softly and Mr. Polly turned quickly. But it was only the pointed nose and intelligent face of the young man with the gilt spectacles and discreet manner. He coughed and the spectacles fixed Mr. Polly.
“I say,” he said with quiet earnestness. “There’s a chap out here seems to want someone.”
“Why don’t he come in?” said Mr. Polly.
“He seems to want you out there.”
“What’s he want?”
“I think,” said the spectacled young man after a thoughtful moment, “he appears to have brought you a present of fish.”
“Isn’t he shouting?”
“He is a little boisterous.”
“He’d better come in.”
The manner of the spectacled young man intensified. “I wish you’d come out and persuade him to go away,” he said. “His language—isn’t quite the thing—ladies.”
“It never was,” said the plump woman, her voice charged with sorrow.
Mr. Polly moved towards the door and stood with his hand on the handle. The gold-spectacled face disappeared.
“Now, my man,” came his voice from outside, “be careful what you’re saying—”
“Oo in all the World and Hereafter are you to call me, me man?” cried Uncle Jim in the voice of one astonished and pained beyond endurance, and added scornfully: “You gold-eyed Geezer, you!”
“Tut, tut!” said the gentleman in gilt glasses. “Restrain yourself!”
Mr. Polly emerged, poker in hand, just in time to see what followed. Uncle Jim in his shirtsleeves and a state of ferocious decolletage, was holding something—yes!—a dead eel by means of a piece of newspaper about its tail, holding it down and back and a little sideways in such a way as to smite with it upward and hard. It struck the spectacled gentleman under the jaw with a peculiar dead thud, and a cry of horror came from the two seated parties at the sight. One of the girls shrieked piercingly, “Horace!” and everyone sprang up. The sense of helping numbers came to Mr. Polly’s aid.
“Drop it!” he cried, and came down the steps waving his poker and thrusting the spectacled gentleman before him as once heroes were wont to wield the ox-hide shield.
Uncle Jim gave ground suddenly, and trod upon the foot of a young man in a blue shirt, who immediately thrust at him violently with both hands.
“Lea go!” howled Uncle Jim. “That’s the chap I’m looking for!” and pressing the head of the spectacled gentleman aside, smote hard at Mr. Polly.
But at the sight of this indignity inflicted upon the spectacled gentleman a woman’s heart was stirred, and a pink parasol drove hard and true at Uncle Jim’s wiry neck, and at the same moment the young man in the blue shirt sought to collar him and lost his grip again.
“Suffragettes,” gasped Uncle Jim with the ferule at his throat. “Everywhere!” and aimed a second more successful blow at Mr. Polly.
“Wup!” said Mr. Polly.
But now the jam and egg party was joining in the fray. A stout yet still fairly able-bodied gentleman in white and black checks enquired: “What’s the fellow up to? Ain’t there no police here?” and it was evident that once more public opinion was rallying to the support of Mr. Polly.
“Oh, come on then all the lot of you!” cried Uncle Jim, and backing dexterously whirled the eel round in a destructive circle. The pink sunshade was torn from the hand that gripped it and whirled athwart the complete, but unadorned, tea things on the green table.
“Collar him! Someone get hold of his collar!” cried the gold-spectacled gentleman, coming out of the scrimmage, retreating up the steps to the inn door as if to rally his forces.
“Stand clear, you blessed mantel ornaments!” cried Uncle Jim, “stand clear!” and retired backing, staving off attack by means of the whirling eel.
Mr. Polly, undeterred by a sense of grave damage done to his nose, pressed the attack in front, the two young men in violet and blue skirmished on Uncle Jim’s flanks, the man in white and black checks sought still further outflanking possibilities, and two of the apprentice boys ran for oars. The gold-spectacled gentleman, as if inspired, came down the wooden steps again, seized the tablecloth of the jam and egg party, lugged it from under the crockery with inadequate precautions against breakage, and advanced with compressed lips, curious lateral crouching movements, swift flashings of his glasses, and a general suggestion of bull-fighting in his pose and gestures. Uncle Jim was kept busy, and unable to plan his retreat with any strategic soundness. He was moreover manifestly a little nervous about the river in his rear. He gave ground in a curve, and so came right across the rapidly abandoned camp of the family in mourning, crunching a teacup under his heel, oversetting the teapot, and finally tripping backwards over the hamper. The eel flew out at a tangent from his hand and became a mere looping relic on the sward.
“Hold him!” cried the gentleman in spectacles. “Collar him!” and moving forward with extraordinary promptitude wrapped the best tablecloth about Uncle Jim’s arms and head. Mr. Polly grasped his purpose instantly, the man in checks was scarcely slower, and in another moment Uncle Jim was no more than a bundle of smothered blasphemy and a pair of wildly active legs.
“Duck him!” panted Mr. Polly, holding on to the earthquake. “Bes’ thing—duck him.”
The bundle was convulsed by paroxysms of anger and protest. One boot got the hamper and sent it ten yards.
“Go in the house for a clothes line someone!” said the gentleman in gold spectacles. “He’ll get out of this in a moment.”
One of the apprentices ran.
“Bird nets in the garden,” shouted Mr. Polly. “In the garden!”
The apprentice was divided in his purpose. And then suddenly Uncle Jim collapsed and became a limp, dead seeming thing under their hands. His arms were drawn inward, his legs bent up under his person, and so he lay.
“Fainted!” said the man in checks, relaxing his grip.
“A fit, perhaps,” said the man in spectacles.
“Keep hold!” said Mr. Polly, too late.
For suddenly Uncle Jim’s arms and legs flew out like springs released. Mr. Polly was tumbled backwards and fell over the broken teapot and into the arms of the father in mourning. Something struck his head—dazzingly. In another second Uncle Jim was on his feet and the tablecloth enshrouded the head of the man in checks. Uncle Jim manifestly considered he had done all that honour required of him, and against overwhelming numbers and the possibility of reiterated duckings, flight is no disgrace.
Uncle Jim fled.
Mr. Polly sat up after an interval of an indeterminate length among the ruins of an idyllic afternoon. Quite a lot of things seemed scattered and broken, but it was difficult to grasp it all at once. He stared between the legs of people. He became aware of a voice, speaking slowly and complainingly.
“Someone ought to pay for those tea things,” said the father in mourning. “We didn’t bring them ’ere to be danced on, not by no manner of means.”
There followed an anxious peace for three days, and then a rough man in a blue jersey, in the intervals of trying to choke himself with bread and cheese and pickled onions, broke out abruptly into information.
“Jim’s lagged again, Missus,” he said.
“What!” said the landlady. “Our Jim?”
“Your Jim,” said the man, and after an absolutely necessary pause for swallowing, added: “Stealin’ a ’atchet.”
He did not speak for some moments, and then he replied to Mr. Polly’s enquiries: “Yes, a ’atchet. Down Lammam way—night before last.”
“What’d ’e steal a ’atchet for?” asked the plump woman.
“’E said ’e wanted a ’atchet.”
“I wonder what he wanted a hatchet for?” said Mr. Polly, thoughtfully.
“I dessay ’e ’ad a use for it,” said the gentleman in the blue jersey, and he took a mouthful that amounted to conversational suicide. There was a prolonged pause in the little bar, and Mr. Polly did some rapid thinking.
He went to the window and whistled. “I shall stick it,” he whispered at last. “’Atchets or no ’atchets.”
He turned to the man with the blue jersey when he thought him clear for speech again. “How much did you say they’d given him?” he asked.
“Three munce,” said the man in the blue jersey, and refilled anxiously, as if alarmed at the momentary clearness of his voice.
Those three months passed all too quickly; months of sunshine and warmth, of varied novel exertion in the open air, of congenial experiences, of interest and wholesome food and successful digestion, months that browned Mr. Polly and hardened him and saw the beginnings of his beard, months marred only by one anxiety, an anxiety Mr. Polly did his utmost to suppress. The day of reckoning was never mentioned, it is true, by either the plump woman or himself, but the name of Uncle Jim was written in letters of glaring silence across their intercourse. As the term of that respite drew to an end his anxiety increased, until at last it even trenched upon his well-earned sleep. He had some idea of buying a revolver. At last he compromised upon a small and very foul and dirty rook rifle which he purchased in Lammam under a pretext of bird scaring, and loaded carefully and concealed under his bed from the plump woman’s eye.
September passed away, October came.
And at last came that night in October whose happenings it is so difficult for a sympathetic historian to drag out of their proper nocturnal indistinctness into the clear, hard light of positive statement. A novelist should present characters, not vivisect them publicly....
The best, the kindliest, if not the justest course is surely to leave untold such things as Mr. Polly would manifestly have preferred untold.
Mr. Polly had declared that when the cyclist discovered him he was seeking a weapon that should make a conclusive end to Uncle Jim. That declaration is placed before the reader without comment.
The gun was certainly in possession of Uncle Jim at that time and no human being but Mr. Polly knows how he got hold of it.
The cyclist was a literary man named Warspite, who suffered from insomnia; he had risen and come out of his house near Lammam just before the dawn, and he discovered Mr. Polly partially concealed in the ditch by the Potwell churchyard wall. It is an ordinary dry ditch, full of nettles and overgrown with elder and dogrose, and in no way suggestive of an arsenal. It is the last place in which you would look for a gun. And he says that when he dismounted to see why Mr. Polly was allowing only the latter part of his person to show (and that it would seem by inadvertency), Mr. Polly merely raised his head and advised him to “Look out!” and added: “He’s let fly at me twice already.” He came out under persuasion and with gestures of extreme caution. He was wearing a white cotton nightgown of the type that has now been so extensively superseded by pyjama sleeping suits, and his legs and feet were bare and much scratched and torn and very muddy.
Mr. Warspite takes that exceptionally lively interest in his fellow-creatures which constitutes so much of the distinctive and complex charm of your novelist all the world over, and he at once involved himself generously in the case. The two men returned at Mr. Polly’s initiative across the churchyard to the Potwell Inn, and came upon the burst and damaged rook rifle near the new monument to Sir Samuel Harpon at the corner by the yew.
“That must have been his third go,” said Mr. Polly. “It sounded a bit funny.”
The sight inspirited him greatly, and he explained further that he had fled to the churchyard on account of the cover afforded by tombstones from the flight of small shot. He expressed anxiety for the fate of the landlady of the Potwell Inn and her grandchild, and led the way with enhanced alacrity along the lane to that establishment.
They found the doors of the house standing open, the bar in some disorder—several bottles of whisky were afterwards found to be missing—and Blake, the village policeman, rapping patiently at the open door. He entered with them. The glass in the bar had suffered severely, and one of the mirrors was starred from a blow from a pewter pot. The till had been forced and ransacked, and so had the bureau in the minute room behind the bar. An upper window was opened and the voice of the landlady became audible making enquiries. They went out and parleyed with her. She had locked herself upstairs with the little girl, she said, and refused to descend until she was assured that neither Uncle Jim nor Mr. Polly’s gun were anywhere on the premises. Mr. Blake and Mr. Warspite proceeded to satisfy themselves with regard to the former condition, and Mr. Polly went to his room in search of garments more suited to the brightening dawn. He returned immediately with a request that Mr. Blake and Mr. Warspite would “just come and look.” They found the apartment in a state of extraordinary confusion, the bedclothes in a ball in the corner, the drawers all open and ransacked, the chair broken, the lock of the door forced and broken, one door panel slightly scorched and perforated by shot, and the window wide open. None of Mr. Polly’s clothes were to be seen, but some garments which had apparently once formed part of a stoker’s workaday outfit, two brownish yellow halves of a shirt, and an unsound pair of boots were scattered on the floor. A faint smell of gunpowder still hung in the air, and two or three books Mr. Polly had recently acquired had been shied with some violence under the bed. Mr. Warspite looked at Mr. Blake, and then both men looked at Mr. Polly. “That’s his boots,” said Mr. Polly.
Blake turned his eye to the window. “Some of these tiles ’ave just got broken,” he observed.
“I got out of the window and slid down the scullery tiles,” Mr. Polly answered, omitting much, they both felt, from his explanation....
“Well, we better find ’im and ’ave a word with ’im,” said Blake. “That’s about my business now.”
But Uncle Jim had gone altogether....
He did not return for some days. That perhaps was not very wonderful. But the days lengthened to weeks and the weeks to months and still Uncle Jim did not recur. A year passed, and the anxiety of him became less acute; a second healing year followed the first. One afternoon about thirty months after the Night Surprise the plump woman spoke of him.
“I wonder what’s become of Jim,” she said.
“I wonder sometimes,” said Mr. Polly.