Ernest Temple Thurston.

The city of beautiful nonsense online

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then, God sends a Mrs. Rowse to clear away the
breakfast things.

But Mrs. Rowse was in a hurry that morning.
There was no money due to her. You would not
have foimd the faintest suspicion of lingering in
anything that she did then. Even the topic that
interested her most — ^her daughters — ^had no power
to distract her attention.

She was going to take them out to the country
—they were going down to Denham to see her sis-
ter, as soon as her work was done — ^Lizzie, who
stuck labels on the jam-jars in Crosse and Black-
well's, and Maud, who packed cigarettes in Lam-
bert and Butler's.

There were those living in Peabody Buildings,
who said that Lizzie would have a beautiful voice,
if she'd only practise. She could sing, " Love Me
and the World Is Mine." She could sing that
lovely. , And Maud — ^well, Mrs. Rowse had even got
a piano in their little tenement rooms for Maud to
learn on, but Maud would never practise neither.
True, she could pick up just anything she heard,
pick it up quite easy with the right hand, though
she could only vamp, foolish-like, with the left.

Yet upon these portentous matters, Mrs. Rowse
M^ould say nothing that morning* They were going

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to catch a mid-day train from Marylebone down to
Denham, and she had no time to waste.

** Would you mind me coming with you, Mrs.
Bowse?" said John suddenly. As suddenly he
regretted it, but only because of its impossi-

There is some sort of imwritten law which says
that when you accompany ladies on a journey by
train, you must pay for their tickets, and all women
are ladies if they do not swear or spit on the ground.
You should take off your hat to everyone of them
you know when in the street. It may be that they
are charwomen, that they stick labels upon jam-
jars in their spare hours, that they pack up little
boxes of cigarettes when there is nothing else to
do, but in the street, they are women — and all
women, with the restrictions here mentioned, are

Now John could not possibly pay for their tickets.
He could ill-ajfford to pay for his own. It would
mean no meal the next day if he did. And here let
it be said — ^lest any should think that his poverty is
harped upon — John was always poor, except for
five minutes after an excursion to the pawn-shop,
and perhaps five days after the receipt of the royal-
ties upon his work. You may be sure at least of
this, that ^John will jingle the money in his pocket
and run his finger-nail over the minted edge of the
silver when he has any. If he has gold, you will see
him take it out under the light of a lamp-post
when it is dark, in order to make sure that the sov-
ereign is not a shilling. On all other occasions than

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these, assume that he Is poor, — ^nay, more than as-
sume, take it for granted.

Accordingly, directly he had made this offer to
accompany Mrs. Rowse and her daughters to Den-
ham, he had to withdraw it.

** No,** said he, " I wish I could come — ^but I'm
afraid it's impossible. I've got work to do."

Quite soon after that Mrs. Rowse departed.

" Hope you'll enjoy yourselves," said he.

"We always do in the country," replied she as
she put on her hat outside the door. And then —
"Good-morning, sir," — and she too had gone; the
door into the street had banged again, and the
whole house, from floor to roof, was empty but for
the sandy cat, the tortoiseshell cat and John.

He sat on there in the stillness. Even the cats
grew tired of play and were still. Then came the
rain, rain that turned to sleet, that drove against
the roofs outside and tried, by hiding in the cor-
ners of the chimneys, to look like snow. John
thought of the tulips in Kensington Gardens.
Spring can come gladsomely to England — ^it can
come bitterly, too. Those poor people in the coun-
try! But would the country ever permit such
weather as this? Even supposing it did, they would
not be lonely as he was. Mr. Morrell had Mrs.
Brown to talk to, and Mr. Brown had the company
of Mrs. Morrell. There were Lizzie and Maud for
Mrs. Rowse. Perhaps going down in the train, they
would get a carriage to themselves and Lizzie would
sing, " Love Me and the World Is Mine," and Maud
would count cigarettes in her mind, and pack them

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up in her mind, or more probably forget that there
ever were such things as cigarettes in the fresh de*
Cght of seeing the country with bread and cheese
on all the hedges. Those young green buds on the
hawthorn hedges are the pedestrian's bread and
cheese. But you know that, every bit as well as I.

Well, it seemed that everyone had company but
John. He took out of his pocket the last letter his
mother had written him from Venice — took it out
and spread it before him. If only she were there!
If only her bright brown eyes were looking at him,
what thousands of things there would be to say!
What short stories and beginnings of new books
would there not be to read her! And how sympa-
thetically would she not listen. How frequently
would she not place those dear paralysed hands of
hers in his, as he read, at some new passage that
she liked!

" My darling botf **

He could hear that gentle voice of hers — ^like the
sound you may hear in the ring of an old china
tea-cup — ^he could hear it, as she had dictated it to
his father to write

" This is where I begin cownting the days to your
visit. I dare not begin sooner — too many -figures
always bewildered me. It is now just about three
months. Your father is much better than he was,
and is doing a little work these days.**

And here was added in a quaint little parenthesis
of his father's : " She calls it work, my dear boy,
'just to please me — but when old men play, they
like to hear it called work. You've got to do my

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work. And she is so quick — she has seen I have
been writing mare than she ha^ said. I shall per-
suade her to let this stay in nevertheless**

Then, uninterrupted for a space the letter con-

"/*m so pleased that your work is going on so
well. I thought your last story was too sad,
though. Must stories end unhappily? Yours air
ways seem to. But I think I guess. They won*t
always end like that. But your father says I am
not to worry you on that point; that you can*t
paint in a tone of gold what you see in a tone of
grey^ and that what you 'see now in a tone of grey,
you will as likely as not see one day in a tone of

Then, here, another parenthesis.

" You will wnderstand what I mean, my dear hoy.
Tve read the story, and I don*t think it ought to
end sadly, and you will no doubt say, ' Oh, he* a
quite old-fashioned; he does not know that a sad
ending is an artistic ending.* But that is not be -
cause I am old-fashioned. It is simply because I
am old. When you are yowng, you see unhappy
endings because you are yov/ng enough to bear the
pain of them. It is only when you get older that
you see otherwise. When you have had your sorrow^
which, you know, only as an artist I wish for you^
then you will write in another strain. Go on with
your unhappy endings. Don^t take any notice of
us. All your work wUl be happy one day, and re^
member, you are not writing for but because of us.
By the way, I think you spelt paregoric wrong.**

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Now again the dictation.

** Well^ anyhow^ though I Jcnora nothing about rt,
7 feel you "write as though you loved. You would
teU me, would you not, if you didf I am sure it
must be the way to write, the way, in fact, to do
everything. Your father says the pictures he paints
now lack strength and vigour; but I find them just
as beautiful; they are so gentle.**


** One can*t always love as one did at twenty-sis
— r. G. That sownds like reverential gratitude for
the fact, but you understand it is only my initials.**

" He has written something again, John — and he
won*t tell m>e what it is. If he has said he is get'
ting too old to love, don*t believe him. He has
just leant forward and kissed m>e on my forehead.
I have insisted upon his writing this down. Your
story about the girl in the chapel and the last can-
dle amused us very much. It interested me espe-
cially. If it had been m>e, I should have fallen in
love with you then and there for being so consid-
erate. What was she like? Have you ever seen her
since? I can*t feel that you were meant to m£et
her for nothing. I have tried to think, too, what
she could have been praying to St. Joseph for, but
it is beyond me. It is not like a woman to pray for
money for herself. Perhaps some of her relations
have money troubles. That is all I can imagine^
though I have thought over it every day since I
got your letter. God bless you, my darling. We
are waiting eagerly for the reviews of your new
book. When wiU it be out — the exact date? I

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want to say a novena for if, so let me know m good
time. And if you meet the Lady of St. Joseph —
as you call her — again, you must promise to tell
Toe all about it. Your father wants the rest of the
sheet of note-paper on which to say something to
you — so, God bless you always.**

** Don't read the reviews when they come out,
John. Send^ them along to Tne, and VU sort out the
best ones and send them back to you to read. As
far as I can see, there are so many critics who get
the personal note into their criticisms, and to read
these, whether praising or blaming, won^t do you
any good; so send them all along to me before you
look at them. The first moment you can send me a
copy, of course, you mil. Your loving father.**

Here the letter ended. Long as It was, it might
well have been longer. They were good company,
those two old people, talking to him through those
thin sheets of foreign paper, one breaking in upon
the other with all due courtesy, just as they might
with a " Finish what you have to say, my dear," in
ordinary conversation.

And now they had gone to the country, too —
they had left him alone. When he had folded up
the letter, it was almost as if he could hear the
'door bang again for the third time.

He leant back in his chair with an involuntary
sigh. What a few people, after all, there were in
the world whom he really knew ! What a few people
who would seek out his company on such a day as
this ! He stood up and stretched out his arms above
his head — ^it was

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He stopped. A sound had struck to his heart
and set it beating, as wh^i the bull's-eye of a target
is hit.

The bell had rung ! His electric bell ! The elec-
tric bell which had raised him immeasureably in sta-
tion above Mrs. Morrell and Mrs. Brown, who had
only a knocker coinmon to the whole house — one, in
fact, of the landlord's fixtures! It had rung, and
his heart was beating to the echoes of it.

In another second, he had opened his door; in
another moment, he was flying down the uncarpeted
wooden stairs, five at a time. At the door itself, he
paused, playing with the sensation of uncertainty.
Who could it be? If the honest truth be known, it
scarcely mattered. Someone! Someone had come
out of nowhere to keep him company. A few per-
sonalities rushed to his mind. It might be the man
who sometimes illustrated his stories, an untidy in-
dividual who had a single phrase that he always
introduced into every conversation — it was, " Lend
me half-a-crown till to-morrow, will you? " It would
be splendid if it were him. They could lunch to-
gether on the half-crown. It might be the traveller
from the wholesale tailor's — a man whom he had
found begging in the street, and told to come round
to Number 39 whenever he was at his wit's end for
a meal. That would be better still; he was a man
full of experiences, full of stories from the various
sleeping^houses where he spent his nights.

Supposing it were Jill! A foolish, a hopeless
thought to enter the mind. She did not know where
he lived. She might, though, by some freak of

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chance, have found out. But if she had, would she
ever come to see him? No, that was too great a
hope — ^much too great — ^much too great.

Then he opened the door.

There was no one. The street wajs empty. He
looked up and down. Only a widow, carrjdng a
bundle under her aim, was to be seen, walldng slowly
in the direction of Holbom.

Oh, the Irony of it! Irony even in the thought
that had he not paused to dally with that sensation,
he might perhaps have caught the Kttle hell-fiend of
a runaway before he got out of sight. But no likely
imp was to be seen. If there had been, he would
have had to suffer, justly or unjustly; for there is a
consoling saying in Holy Writ that the rain falls
equally upon the just and upon the unjust, and
from this, in such a circumstance, an exasperated
man can borrow what consolation he may.

Up the stairs, he toiled slowly again, trying to
strain satisfaction from philosophy, telling himself
that had there been no runaway bell, there would
have been no sensation worth recording that day,
and then, losing patience with it all and the clock
striking one, he put on his hat, went down into the
street, and set out for lunch to the Martyrs' Club.

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The sleet had driven honestly into snow by the time
John had finished his lunch and, there being but
two old original members in the Martyrs' Club, who
were congratulating each other upon having put on
their fur coats, stayed in town and not gone to the
country, he left as soon as his meal was over.

The hall-porter stood reluctantly to his feet as
he passed out, — so reluctantly that John felt as
though he should apologise for the etiquette of the
club. In the street, he turned up the collar of his
coat and set off with determination, intended to
show the hall-porter that he had a definite destina*
tion and but Httle time in which to reach it.

Round the comer and out of sight, he began
counting to himself the people he might go and see.
Each name, as -he reviewed it in his mind, presented
some difficulty either of approval or of place. At
last, he found himself wandering in the direction of
Holbom. In a side street of that neighbourhood
lived his little typewriter, who had promised to fin-
ish two short stories over Easter. She would be as
glad of company as he. She would willingly cease
from pounding the symphony of the one monotonous
note on those lifeless keys. They would talk to-
gether of wonderful works yet to be typed. He
would strum on her hired piano. The minutes would


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sKp by and she would get tea, would boil the kettle
on that miniature gas-stove, situated in her bed-
room, where he had often imagined her saying her
prayers in the morning while a piece of bacon was
frying in the pan by her side — ^prayers, the Amen of
which would be hastened and emphasised by the boil-
ing over of the milk. Those are the prayers that
reach Heaven. They are so human. And a burnt
sacrifice of burnt milk accompanying them, they
are consistent with all the ritual of the Old Testa-

To the little tjrpewriter's, then, he decided to go.
It did not matter so very much if his stories were
not finished over Easter. They could wait.

He rang the bell, wondering if her heart was
leaping as his had done but an hour or so before.
His ears were alert for the scurrying of feet on her
uncarpeted, wooden stairs. He bent his head side-
ways to the door. There was no sound. He rang
again. Then he heard the creaking of the stairs.
She was coming — oh, but so slowly ! Annoyed, per-
haps, by the disturbance, just as she was getting
into work.

The door was opened. His heart dropped. He
saw an old woman with red-rimmed eyes which
peered at him suspiciously from the half-opened

** Is Miss Gerrard in? *' he asked.

" Gone to the country — ^won't be back till Tues-
day," was the reply.

Gone to the country ! And his work would never
be finished over Easter! Oh, it was not quite fair!

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"Any message?'* said the old housekeeper.

"No,** said John; "nothing,'* and he walked

Circumstance was conspiring that he should
Work — circumstance was driving him back to Fetter
Lane. Yet the loneliness of it all was intolerable.
It was, moreover, a loneliness that he could not ex-
plain. There had been other Easter Sundays ; there
had been other days of snow and sleet and rain, but
he had never felt this description of loneliness be-
fore. It was not depression. Depression sat there,
certainly, as it were upon the doorstep, ready to en-
ter at the faintest sound of invitation. But as yet,
she was on the doorstep only, and this — this leaden
weight at the heart, this chain upon all the energies
— ^was loneliness that he was entertaining, a condi-
tion of loneliness that he had never known before.

Why had he gone to see the little typewriter?
Why had he not chosen the man who illustrated his
stories, or many of the other men whom he knew
would be in town that day and any day — ^men who
never went into the country from one year's end to
the other?

It had been the company of a woman he had
wanted. Why was that? Why that, suddenly,
rather than the company he knew he could find?
What was there in the companionship of a woman
that he had so unexpectedly discovered the need of
it? Why had he envied Mr. Brown who had Mrs.
Morrell to talk to, or Mr. Morrell who could un-
burden himself to Mrs. Brown? Why had he been
glad when Mrs. Rowse came and imutterably lonely

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when she left? Why had he suggested going to the
country with her, pleased at the thought that Liz-
zie would sing, ^ Love Me and the World Is Mine,*'
and that Maud would be counting and packing
cigarettes in her mind?

The questions poured into his thoughts, rushing
by, not waiting for an answer, until they all cul*
minated in one overwhelming realisation. It was

Morning after morning, for a whole week, they
had met in secret, not in Kensington Gardens alone,
but in the most extraordinary of places — once even
at Wrigglesworth's, the obscure eating-house in Fet-
ter Lane, she little knowing how near they were to
where he lived. He had read her his stories ; he had
given her copies of the two books that bore his
name upon their covers. They had discussed them
together. She had said she was sure he was going
to be a great man, and that is always so consoling,
because its utter impossibility prevents you from
questioning it for a moment. .

Then it wa^ Jill. And all the disappointment, all
the loneliness of this Easter Sunday had been lead-
ing up to this.

Common sense — except in that mad moment when
he had hoped the bell had been rung by her — ^had
debarred him from thinking of seeking her out. But
away in the deep comers of his mind, it was her
company he was looking for — ^her company he had
sought to find, first in Mrs, Rowse and then in the
little typewriter.

Shutting the door of his room, he went across

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to the chair by the fire. What did it mean? What
did it mean? Here and there he had fallen in love;
but this was not theisame sort of thing. This was
not falling in love. Falling in love was quick, sud-
den, a flash that burnt up all desire to work, flared
out in a moment, obliterating everything else. But
this was slow, stealthy, a growing thing that asked,
not for sudden satisfaction, but for wonderful, un-
tellable things.

All the attributes common to love, as he had un-
derstood it, had no place in this sensation. As he
had thought of it, love found its expression in the
gratification of the need with which it had begun,
or it ended, like his stories — ^imhappily. Then this
could not be love. There was no ending of gratifi-
cation and no ending of unhappiness to this. It
wsB unending. Was that what his mother had
meant he would learn?

Then, as he sat before the fire, wondering what
new thing he had found, the bell rang again. It
found no echo on this occasion. He slowly turned
his head. They were not going to deceive him a
second time. He rose quietly from his chair, crossed
to the window, silently raised it and, as silently,
looked out. There, below him, he saw a woman's
hat — a hat with fur in it, cunningly twined through
grey velvet, — a hat that he knew, a hat that he had
often seen before.

He closed the window quietly and slowly made his
way downstairs. Before he reached the end of the
passage, the bell rang again. Then he opened the

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It was the lady on whose behalf the fur coat
had discharged the debt of honour.

She stepped right m with a little laugh of pleas-
ure at finding him there ; turned and waited while he
closed the door behind them, then linked her arm in
his as they mounted the stairs.

"I came,'* said she, "on chance. Aren't you
glad to see me?''

There was just that fraction's pause before he re-
plied — that pause into which a woman's mind leaps
for answer. And how accurately she makes that
leap, how surely she reaches the mental ground upon
which you take your place, you will never be able
truly to anticipate.

"Yes," said John, "Tm very glad."

" Then what is it? " she said quickly. " Are you
writing? "

" No, I'm not. I've tried to, but I can't."

"Then are you expecting someone?"

He looked up at her, smiled, opened the door of
his room, and bid her pass through.

"And is all this," said he, "because I paused a
moment when you asked me if I was glad to see
you? "

She seated herself easily in the chair to which
she was accustomed. She began drawing the pins
out of her hat, as a woman does when she feels at
home. When the hat was free of her heaps of
brown-red hair, she threw it carelessly upon the
table, shook her head and lifted the hair from her
forehead with her fingers. And John stood by with
a smile, thinking how the faintest shadow of a

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word of question would make that hat fly back
on to the head of brown-red hair, the hat-pins pierce
the crown with hasty pride, and the Kttle purse that
lay upon the table alongside of them be clutched in
an eager, scornful hand, as she would rise, full of
dignity, to depart.

He let the smile fade away, and repeated his ques*

"Yes,*' she said. "I thought when you didn't
answer at once that you weren't very keen to see

"And if I said I wasn't very keen, would you
go at once ? "

Her eyebrows lifted high. She made a movement
in her chair. One hand was already beginning to
stretch out for the grey velvet hat.

"Like a shot!" she answered.

He nodded his head.

" That's what I thought," said John.^

She rose quickly to her feet.

" If you want me to go, why don't you say so? "

He put his hands on her shoulders and seated her
gently back again in the chair.

** But I don't want you to go," he replied. " Pve
got a lot of things I want to say to you."

"If you're going to talk evolution ^" she


He laughed.

** It's something very like it," said he.

She gave a sigh of resignation, took out a packet
of cigarettes, extracted one, lit it and inhaled the
first breath deep — deep into her lungs.

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" Well, go on,** she said.

" Have you got plenty of cigarettes? ^

^ Yes, plenty to-day.**

** Hadn't you yesterday? f*

^No, Mother and I raked up all the dgarette
ends out of the fireplaces, and I just had a penny
for a packet of cigarette papers.** She laughed.

This is the honesty of poverty. She would take
no money from any man. For just as the virtue of
wealth will bring out the evil of avarice, so will the
evil of poverty bring out the virtue of self-respect*
In this world, there is as much good that comes out
of evil as ever stands by itself alone. This, in fact,
is the need of evil, that out of it may lift the good.

** Well, what have you got to say? ** she continued.
^ Gret it over as quick as you can. I shan't under-

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Online LibraryErnest Temple ThurstonThe city of beautiful nonsense → online text (page 8 of 21)