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George Gissing


On the station platform at Dudley Port, in the dusk of a February
afternoon, half-a-dozen people waited for the train to Birmingham. A
south-west wind had loaded the air with moisture, which dripped at
moments, thinly and sluggishly, from a featureless sky. The lamps, just
lighted, cast upon wet wood and metal a pale yellow shimmer; voices
sounded with peculiar clearness; so did the rumble of a porter's barrow
laden with luggage. From a foundry hard by came the muffled, rhythmic
thunder of mighty blows; this and the long note of an engine-whistle
wailing far off seemed to intensify the stillness of the air as gloomy
day passed into gloomier night.

In clear daylight the high, uncovered platform would have offered an
outlook over the surrounding country, but at this hour no horizon was
discernible. Buildings near at hand, rude masses of grimy brick, stood
out against a grey confused background; among them rose a turret which
vomited crimson flame. This fierce, infernal glare seemed to lack the
irradiating quality of earthly fires; with hard, though fluctuating
outline, it leapt towards the kindred night, and diffused a blotchy
darkness. In the opposite direction, over towards Dudley Town, appeared
spots of lurid glow. But on the scarred and barren plain which extends
to Birmingham there had settled so thick an obscurity, vapours from
above blending with earthly reek, that all tile beacons of fiery toil
were wrapped and hidden.

Of the waiting travellers, two kept apart from the rest, pacing this
way and that, but independently of each other. They were men of
dissimilar appearance; the one comfortably and expensively dressed, his
age about fifty, his visage bearing the stamp of commerce; the other,
younger by more than twenty years, habited in a way which made it;
difficult to as certain his social standing, and looking about him with
eyes suggestive of anything but prudence or content. Now and then they
exchanged a glance: he of the high hat and caped ulster betrayed an
interest in the younger man, who, in his turn, took occasion to observe
the other from a distance, with show of dubious recognition.

The trill of an electric signal, followed by a clanging bell, brought
them both to a pause, and they stood only two or three yards apart.
Presently a light flashed through the thickening dusk; there was
roaring, grinding, creaking and a final yell of brake-tortured wheels.
Making at once for the nearest third-class carriage, the man in the
seedy overcoat sprang to a place, and threw himself carelessly back; a
moment, and he was followed by the second passenger, who seated himself
on the opposite side of the compartment. Once more they looked at each
other, but without change of countenance.

Tickets were collected, for there would be no stoppage before
Birmingham: then the door slammed, and the two men were alone together.

Two or three minutes after the train had started, the elder man leaned
forward, moved slightly, and spoke.

"Excuse me, I think your name must be Hilliard."

"What then?" was the brusque reply.

"You don't remember me?"

"Scoundrels are common enough," returned the other, crossing his legs,
"but I remember you for all that."

The insult was thrown out with a peculiarly reckless air; it astounded
the hearer, who sat for an instant with staring eyes and lips apart;
then the blood rushed to his cheeks.

"If I hadn't just about twice your muscle, my lad," he answered
angrily, "I'd make you repent that, and be more careful with your
tongue in future. Now, mind what you say! We've a quiet quarter of an
hour before us, and I might alter my mind."

The young man laughed contemptuously. He was tall, but slightly built,
and had delicate hands.

"So you've turned out a blackguard, have you?" pursued his companion,
whose name was Dengate. "I heard something about that."

"From whom?"

"You drink, I am told. I suppose that's your condition now."

"Well, no; not just now," answered Hilliard. He spoke the language of
an educated man, but with a trace of the Midland accent. Dengate's
speech had less refinement.

"What do you mean by your insulting talk, then? I spoke to you civilly."

"And I answered as I thought fit."

The respectable citizen sat with his hands on his knees, and
scrutinised the other's sallow features.

"You've been drinking, I can see. I had something to say to you, but
I'd better leave it for another time."

Hilliard flashed a look of scorn, and said sternly -

"I am as sober as you are."

"Then just give me civil answers to civil questions."

"Questions? What right have you to question me?"

"It's for your own advantage. You called me scoundrel. What did you
mean by that?"

"That's the name I give to fellows who go bankrupt to get rid of their

"Is it!" said Dengate, with a superior smile. "That only shows how
little you know of the world, my lad. You got it from your father, I
daresay; he had a rough way of talking."

"A disagreeable habit of telling the truth."

"I know all about it. Your father wasn't a man of business, and
couldn't see things from a business point of view. Now, what I just
want to say to you is this: there's all the difference in the world
between commercial failure and rascality. If you go down to Liverpool,
and ask men of credit for their opinion about Charles Edward Dengate,
you'll have a lesson that would profit you. I can see you're one of the
young chaps who think a precious deal of themselves; I'm often coming
across them nowadays, and I generally give them a piece of my mind."

Hilliard smiled.

"If you gave them the whole, it would be no great generosity."

"Eh? Yes, I see you've had a glass or two, and it makes you witty. But
wait a bit I was devilish near thrashing you a few minutes ago; but I
sha'n't do it, say what you like. I don't like vulgar rows."

"No more do I," remarked Hilliard; "and I haven't fought since I was a
boy. But for your own satisfaction, I can tell you it's a wise resolve
not to interfere with me. The temptation to rid the world of one such
man as you might prove too strong."

There was a force of meaning in these words, quietly as they were
uttered, which impressed the listener.

"You'll come to a bad end, my lad."

"Hardly. It's unlikely that I shall ever be rich."

"Oh! you're one of that sort, are you? I've come across Socialistic
fellows. But look here. I'm talking civilly, and I say again it's for
your advantage. I had a respect for your father, and I liked your
brother - I'm sorry to hear he's dead."

"Please keep your sorrow to yourself."

"All right, all right! I understand you're a draughtsman at Kenn and

"I daresay you are capable of understanding that."

Hilliard planted his elbow in the window of the carriage and propped
his cheek on his hand.

"Yes; and a few other things," rejoined the well-dressed man. "How to
make money, for instance. - Well, haven't you any insult ready?"

The other looked out at a row of flaring chimneys, which the train was
rushing past: he kept silence.

"Go down to Liverpool," pursued Dengate, "and make inquiries about me.
You'll find I have as good a reputation as any man living."

He laboured this point. It was evident that he seriously desired to
establish his probity and importance in the young man's eyes. Nor did
anything in his look or speech conflict with such claims. He had hard,
but not disagreeable features, and gave proof of an easy temper.

"Paying one's debts," said Hilliard, "is fatal to reputation."

"You use words you don't understand. There's no such thing as a debt,
except what's recognised by the laws."

"I shouldn't wonder if you think of going into Parliament. You are just
the man to make laws."

"Well, who knows? What I want you to understand is, that if your father
were alive at this moment, I shouldn't admit that he had claim upon me
for one penny."

"It was because I understood it already that I called you a scoundrel."

"Now be careful, my lad," exclaimed Dengate, as again he winced under
the epithet. "My temper may get the better of me, and I should be sorry
for it. I got into this carriage with you (of course I had a
first-class ticket) because I wanted to form an opinion of your
character. I've been told you drink, and I see that you do, and I'm
sorry for it. You'll be losing your place before long, and you'll go
down. Now look here; you've called me foul names, and you've done your
best to rile me. Now I'm going to make you ashamed of yourself."

Hilliard fixed the speaker with his scornful eyes; the last words had
moved him to curiosity.

"I can excuse a good deal in a man with an empty pocket," pursued the
other. "I've been there myself; I know how it makes you feel - how much
do you earn, by the bye?"

"Mind you own business."

"All right. I suppose it's about two pounds a week. Would you like to
know what _my_ in come is? Well, something like two pounds an hour,
reckoning eight hours as the working day. There's a difference, isn't
there? It comes of minding my business, you see. You'll never make
anything like it; you find it easier to abuse people who work than to
work yourself. Now if you go down to Liverpool, and ask how I got to my
present position, you'll find it's the result of hard and honest work.
Understand that: honest work."

"And forgetting to pay your debts," threw in the young man.

"It's eight years since I owed any man a penny. The people I _did_ owe
money to were sensible men of business - all except your father, and he
never could see things in the right light. I went through the
bankruptcy court, and I made arrangements that satisfied my creditors.
I should have satisfied your father too, only he died."

"You paid tuppence ha'penny in the pound."

"No, it was five shillings, and my creditors - sensible men of
business - were satisfied. Now look here. I owed your father four
hundred and thirty-six pounds, but he didn't rank as an ordinary
creditor, and if I had paid him after my bankruptcy it would have been
just because I felt a respect for him - not because he had any legal
claim. I _meant_ to pay him - understand that."

Hilliard smiled. Just then a block signal caused the train to slacken
speed. Darkness had fallen, and lights glimmered from some cottages by
the line.

"You don't believe me," added Dengate.

"I don't."

The prosperous man bit his lower lip, and sat gazing at the lamp in the
carriage. The train came to a standstill; there was no sound but the
throbbing of the engine.

"Well, listen to me," Dengate resumed. "You're turning out badly, and
any money you get you're pretty sure to make a bad use of. But" - he
assumed an air of great solemnity - "all the same - now listen - - "

"I'm listening."

"Just to show you the kind of a man I am, and to make you feel ashamed
of yourself, I'm going to pay you the money."

For a few seconds there was unbroken stillness. The men gazed at each
other, Dengate superbly triumphant, Hilliard incredulous but betraying

"I'm going to pay you four hundred and thirty-six pounds," Dengate
repeated. "No less and no more. It isn't a legal debt, so I shall pay
no interest. But go with me when we get to Birmingham, and you shall
have my cheque for four hundred and thirty-six pounds."

The train began to move on. Hilliard had uncrossed his legs, and sat
bending forward, his eyes on vacancy.

"Does that alter your opinion of me?" asked the other.

"I sha'n't believe it till I have cashed the cheque."

"You're one of those young fellows who think so much of themselves
they've no good opinion to spare for anyone else. And what's more, I've
still half a mind to give you a good thrashing before I give you the
cheque. There's just about time, and I shouldn't wonder if it did you
good. You want some of the conceit taken out of you, my lad."

Hilliard seemed not to hear this. Again he fixed his eyes on the
other's countenance.

"Do you say you are going to pay me four hundred pounds?" he asked

"Four hundred and thirty-six. You'll go to the devil with it, but
that's no business of mine."

"There's just one thing I must tell you. If this is a joke, keep out of
my way after you've played it out, that's all."

"It isn't a joke. And one thing I have to tell _you_. I reserve to
myself the right of thrashing you, if I feel in the humour for it."

Hilliard gave a laugh, then threw himself back into the corner, and did
not speak again until the train pulled up at New Street station.


An hour later he was at Old Square, waiting for the tram to Aston. Huge
steam-driven vehicles came and went, whirling about the open space with
monitory bell-clang. Amid a press of homeward-going workfolk, Hilliard
clambered to a place on the top and lit his pipe. He did not look the
same man who had waited gloomily at Dudley Port; his eyes gleamed with
life; answering a remark addressed to him by a neighbour on the car, he
spoke jovially.

No rain was falling, but the streets shone wet and muddy under lurid
lamp-lights. Just above the house-tops appeared the full moon, a
reddish disk, blurred athwart floating vapour. The car drove northward,
speedily passing from the region of main streets and great edifices
into a squalid district of factories and workshops and crowded by-ways.
At Aston Church the young man alighted, and walked rapidly for five
minutes, till he reached a row of small modern houses. Socially they
represented a step or two upwards in the gradation which, at
Birmingham, begins with the numbered court and culminates in the
mansions of Edgbaston.

He knocked at a door, and was answered by a girl, who nodded

"Mrs. Hilliard in? Just tell her I'm here."

There was a natural abruptness in his voice, but it had a kindly note,
and a pleasant smile accompanied it. After a brief delay he received
permission to go upstairs, where the door of a sitting-room stood open.
Within was a young woman, slight, pale, and pretty, who showed
something of embarrassment, though her face made him welcome.

"I expected you sooner."

"Business kept me back. Well, little girl?"

The table was spread for tea, and at one end of it, on a high chair,
sat a child of four years old. Hilliard kissed her, and stroked her
curly hair, and talked with playful affection. This little girl was his
niece, the child of his elder brother, who had died three years ago.
The poorly furnished room and her own attire proved that Mrs. Hilliard
had but narrow resources in her widowhood. Nor did she appear a woman
of much courage; tears had thinned her cheeks, and her delicate hands
had suffered noticeably from unwonted household work.

Hilliard remarked something unusual in her behaviour this evening. She
was restless, and kept regarding him askance, as if in apprehension. A
letter from her, in which she merely said she wished to speak to him,
had summoned him hither from Dudley. As a rule, they saw each other but
once a month.

"No bad news, I hope!" he remarked aside to her, as he took his place
at the table.

"Oh, no. I'll tell you afterwards."

Very soon after the meal Mrs. Hilliard took the child away and put her
to bed. During her absence the visitor sat brooding, a peculiar
half-smile on his face. She came back, drew a chair up to the fire, but
did not sit down.

"Well, what is it?" asked her brother-in-law, much as he might have
spoken to the little girl.

"I have something very serious to talk about, Maurice."

"Have you? All right; go ahead."

"I - I am so very much afraid I shall offend you."

The young man laughed.

"Not very likely. I can take a good deal from you."

She stood with her hands on the back of the chair, and as he looked at
her, Hilliard saw her pale cheeks grow warm.

"It'll seem very strange to you, Maurice."

"Nothing will seem strange after an adventure I've had this afternoon.
You shall hear about it presently."

"Tell me your story first."

"That's like a woman. All right, I'll tell you. I met that scoundrel
Dengate, and - he's paid me the money he owed my father."

"He has _paid_ it? Oh! really?"

"See, here's a cheque, and I think it likely I can turn it into cash.
The blackguard has been doing well at Liverpool. I'm not quite sure
that I understand the reptile, but he seems to have given me this
because I abused him. I hurt his vanity, and he couldn't resist the
temptation to astonish me. He thinks I shall go about proclaiming him a
noble fellow. Four hundred and thirty-six pounds; there it is."

He tossed the piece of paper into the air with boyish glee, and only
just caught it as it was fluttering into the fire.

"Oh, be careful!" cried Mrs. Hilliard.

"I told him he was a scoundrel, and he began by threatening to thrash
me. I'm very glad he didn't try. It was in the train, and I know very
well I should have strangled him. It would have been awkward, you know."

"Oh, Maurice, how _can_ you - - ?"

"Well, here's the money; and half of it is yours."

"Mine? Oh, no! After all you have given me. Besides, I sha'n't want it."

"How's that?"

Their eyes mete Hilliard again saw the flush in her cheeks, and began
to guess its explanation. He looked puzzled, interested.

"Do I know him?" was his next inquiry.

"Should you think it very wrong of me?" She moved aside from the line
of his gaze. "I couldn't imagine how you would take it."

"It all depends. Who is the man?"

Still shrinking towards a position where Hilliard could not easily
observe her, the young widow told her story. She had consented to marry
a man of whom her brother-in-law knew little but the name, one Ezra
Marr; he was turned forty, a widower without children, and belonged to
a class of small employers of labour known in Birmingham as "little
masters." The contrast between such a man and Maurice Hilliard's
brother was sufficiently pronounced; but the widow nervously did her
best to show Ezra Marr in a favourable light.

"And then," she added after a pause, while Hilliard was reflecting, "I
couldn't go on being a burden on you. How very few men would have done
what you have - - "

"Stop a minute. Is _that_ the real reason? If so - - "

Hurriedly she interposed.

"That was only one of the reasons - only one."

Hilliard knew very well that her marriage had not been entirely
successful; it seemed to him very probable that with a husband of the
artisan class, a vigorous and go-ahead fellow, she would be better
mated than in the former instance. He felt sorry for his little niece,
but there again sentiment doubtless conflicted with common-sense. A few
more questions, and it became clear to him that he had no ground of

"Very well. Most likely you are doing a wise thing. And half this money
is yours; you'll find it useful."

The discussion of this point was interrupted by a tap at the door. Mrs.
Hilliard, after leaving the room for a moment, returned with rosy

"He is here," she murmured. "I thought I should like you to meet him
this evening. Do you mind?"

Mr. Marr entered; a favourable specimen of his kind; strong, comely,
frank of look and speech. Hilliard marvelled somewhat at his choice of
the frail and timid little widow, and hoped upon marriage would follow
no repentance. A friendly conversation between the two men confirmed
them in mutual good opinion. At length Mrs. Hilliard spoke of the offer
of money made by her brother-in-law.

"I don't feel I've any right to it," she said, after explaining the
circumstances. "You know what Maurice has done for me. I've always felt
I was robbing him - - "

"I wanted to say something about that," put in the bass-voiced Ezra. "I
want to tell you, Mr. Hilliard, that you're a man I'm proud to know,
and proud to shake hands with. And if my view goes for anything, Emily
won't take a penny of what you're offering her. I should think it wrong
and mean. It is about time - that's my way of thinking - that you looked
after your own interests. Emily has no claim to a share in this money,
and what's more, I don't wish her to take it."

"Very well," said Hilliard. "I tell you what we'll do. A couple of
hundred pounds shall be put aside for the little girl. You can't make
any objection to that."

The mother glanced doubtfully at her future husband, but Marr again
spoke with emphasis.

"Yes, I do object. If you don't mind me saying it, I'm quite able to
look after the little girl; and the fact is, I want her to grow up
looking to me as her father, and getting all she has from me only. Of
course, I mean nothing but what's friendly: but there it is; I'd rather
Winnie didn't have the money."

This man was in the habit of speaking his mind; Hilliard understood
that any insistence would only disturb the harmony of the occasion. He
waved a hand, smiled good-naturedly, and said no more.

About nine o'clock he left the house and walked to Aston Church. While
he stood there, waiting for the tram, a voice fell upon his ear that
caused him to look round. Crouched by the entrance to the churchyard
was a beggar in filthy rags, his face hideously bandaged, before him on
the pavement a little heap of matchboxes; this creature kept uttering a
meaningless sing-song, either idiot jabber, or calculated to excite
attention and pity; it sounded something like "A-pah-pahky; pah-pahky;
pah"; repeated a score of times, and resumed after a pause. Hilliard
gazed and listened, then placed a copper in the wretch's extended palm,
and turned away muttering, "What a cursed world!"

He was again on the tram-car before he observed that the full moon,
risen into a sky now clear of grosser vapours, gleamed brilliant silver
above the mean lights of earth. And round about it, in so vast a
circumference that it was only detected by the wandering eye, spread a
softly radiant halo. This vision did not long occupy his thoughts, but
at intervals he again looked upward, to dream for a moment on the
silvery splendour and on that wide halo dim-glimmering athwart the
track of stars.


Instead of making for the railway station, to take a train back to
Dudley, he crossed from the northern to the southern extremity of the
town, and by ten o'clock was in one of the streets which lead out of
Moseley Road. Here, at a house such as lodges young men in business, he
made inquiry for "Mr. Narramore," and was forthwith admitted.

Robert Narramore, a long-stemmed pipe at his lips, sat by the fireside;
on the table lay the materials of a satisfactory supper - a cold fowl, a
ham, a Stilton cheese, and a bottle of wine.

"Hollo! You?" he exclaimed, without rising. "I was going to write to
you; thanks for saving me the trouble. Have something to eat?"

"Yes, and to drink likewise."

"Do you mind ringing the bell? I believe there's a bottle of Burgundy
left. If not, plenty of Bass."

He stretched forth a languid hand, smiling amiably. Narramore was the
image of luxurious indolence; he had pleasant features, dark hair
inclined to curliness, a well-built frame set off by good tailoring.
His income from the commercial house in which he held a post of
responsibility would have permitted him to occupy better quarters than
these; but here he had lived for ten years, and he preferred a few
inconveniences to the trouble of moving. Trouble of any kind was
Robert's bugbear. His progress up the commercial ladder seemed due
rather to the luck which favours amiable and good-looking young fellows
than to any special ability or effort of his own. The very sound of his
voice had a drowsiness which soothed - if it did not irritate - the

"Tell them to lay out the truckle-bed," said Hilliard, when he had
pulled the bell. "I shall stay here to-night."


Their talk was merely interjectional, until the visitor had begun to
appease his hunger and had drawn the cork of a second bottle of bitter

"This is a great day," Hilliard then exclaimed. "I left Dudley this
afternoon feeling ready to cut my throat. Now I'm a free man, with the
world before me."

"How's that?"

"Emily's going to take a second husband - that's one thing."

"Heaven be praised! Better than one could have looked for."

Hilliard related the circumstances. Then he drew from his pocket an
oblong slip of paper, and held it out.

"Dengate?" cried his friend. "How the deuce did you get hold of this?"

Explanation followed. They debated Dengate's character and motives.

"I can understand it," said Narramore. "When I was a boy of twelve I

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