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All things pass, even the self-inflicted sufferings of shy young men, by to solitude. Came the winter evenings, I took to work: in it one may drown much sorrow for oneself. With its handful of fire, its two candles lighted, my “apartment” was more . I bought myself paper, pens and ink. Great or small, what more can a writer do? He is but the would-be medium: will the spirit voices employ him or reject him?
London, with its million characters, grave and gay; its ten thousand romances, its mysteries, its , and its humour, lay to my hand. It stretched before me, asking only intelligent observation, more or less report. But that I could make a story out of the things I really knew never occurred to me. My tales were of cottage , of yeomen. My scenes were laid in windmills, among mountains, or in moated granges. I fancy this phase of is common to most youthful fictionists.
A trail of gentle lay over them. Sentiment was more popular then than it is now, and, as do all beginners, I followed fashion. Generally speaking, to be a heroine of mine was fatal. However naturally her hair might curl—and curly hair, I believe, is the hall-mark of ; whatever other indications of vigorous health she might exhibit in the first chapter, such as “dancing eyes,” “colour that came and went,” “ringing laughter,” “fawn-like agility,” she was tolerably certain, poor girl, to end in an untimely grave. Snowdrops and early (my botany I worked up from a useful little volume, “Our Garden Favourites, Illustrated”) grew there as in a forcing house; and if in the neighbourhood of the coast, the sea-breezes would choose that particular churchyard, somewhat irreverently, for their favourite playground. Years later a white-haired man would come there leading little children by the hand, and to them he would tell the tale anew, which must have been a entertainment for them.
Now and then, by way of change, it would be the gentleman who would fall a victim of the deadly atmosphere of my literature. It was of no particular consequence, so he himself would conclude in his last soliloquy; “it was better so.” Snowdrops and primroses, for whatever they might have been to him, it was hopeless for him to expect; his grave, marked by a rude cross, being as a rule situate in an exceptionally unfrequented portion of the African veldt or amid burning sands. For description of final scenery on these occasions a visit to the British Museum reading-room would be necessary.
Dismal little fledgelings! And again and again would I drive them from the nest; again and again they fluttered back to me, soiled, , damaged. Yet one person had admired them, cried over them—myself.
All methods I tried. Sometimes I would send them accompanied by a business note of the take-it-or-leave-it order. At other times I would attach to it pathetic appeals for its consideration. Sometimes I would give value to it, stating that the price was five guineas and requesting that the cheque should be crossed; at other times seek to editorial by offering this, my first contribution to their pages, for nothing—my sample packet, so to speak, sent , one trial surely sufficient. Now I would write , enclosing together with the stamped envelope for return a penned note of . Or I would write , explaining elaborately that I was a beginner, and asking to be told my faults—if any.
Not one found a resting place for its feet. A month, a week, a couple of days, they would remain away from me, then return. I never lost a single one. I wished I had. It would have the monotony.
I hated the poor little slavey who, bursting into the room, would hold them out to me from between her -hidden thumb and finger; her I translated into contempt. If flying down the stairs at the sound of the postman's knock I secured it from his hands, it seemed to me he smiled. Tearing them from their envelopes, I would curse them, abuse them, fling them into the fire sometimes; but before they were more than I would snatch them out, smooth them, reread them. The editor himself could never have seen them; it was impossible; some jealous underling had done this thing. I had sent them to the wrong paper. They had arrived at the inopportune moment. Their triumph would come. Rewriting the first and last sheets, I would send them forth again with fresh hope.
Meanwhile, understanding that the would-be happy must shine in camp as well as field, I sought to fit myself also for the social side of life. Smoking and drinking were the twin sins I found most difficulty in acquiring. I am not claiming a mental so much as confessing a bodily infirmity. The spirit had always been willing, but my flesh was weak. Fired by , I had at school occasionally essayed a cigarette. The result had been distinctly unsatisfactory, and after some two or three attempts, I had abandoned, for the time being, all further endeavour; excusing my faint-heartedness by telling myself with air that smoking was bad for growing boys; attempting to myself by assuming, in presence of contemporaries of stronger stomach, fine pose of ; yet in my heart knowing myself a young hypocrite, disguising physical in the robes of moral courage: a self-deception to which human nature is .
So likewise now and again I had tasted the wine that was red, and that stood year in, year out, on our sideboard. The true inwardness of St. Paul's had been revealed to me; the attitude—sometimes at—of those who drink it under doctor's orders, regarding it as a medicine, appeared to me reasonable. I had noticed also that others, some of them grown men even, making faces, when drinking my mother's claret, and had concluded therefrom that taste for strong liquor was an less easily acquired than is generally supposed. The lack of it in a young man could be no disgrace, and accordingly effort in that direction also had I weakly .
But now, a gentleman at large, my education could no longer be delayed. To the artist in particular was training—and severe training—an absolute necessity. Recently fashion has changed somewhat, but a quarter of a century ago a genius who did not smoke and drink—and that more than was good for him—would have been dismissed without further evidence as an impostor. About the genius I was hopeful, but at no time certain. As regarded the smoking and drinking, so much at least I could make sure of. I set to work methodically, . Smoking, experience taught me, was better practised on Saturday nights, Sunday affording me the opportunity of walking off the effects. Patience and determination were eventually crowned with success: I learned to smoke a cigarette to all appearance as though I were enjoying it. Young men of less character might here have rested content, but of the highest has always been with me a force. The cigarette conquered, I next proceeded to attack the cigar. My first one I remember well: most men do. It was at a smoking concert held in the Islington Drill Hall, to which Minikin had invited me. Not feeling sure whether my growing dizziness were due to the cigar, or in part to the hot, over-crowded room, I made my excuses and slipped out. I found myself in a small courtyard, divided from a neighbouring garden by a low wall. The cause of my trouble was clearly the cigar. My was to take it from my mouth and see how far I could throw it. Conscience, on the other hand, urged me to . It occurred to me that if climbing on to the wall I could walk along it from end to end, there would be no excuse for my not the counsels of perfection. If, on the contrary, try as I might, the wall proved not wide enough for my footsteps, then I should be entitled to lose the beastly thing, and, as best I could, make my way home to bed. I the wall with some difficulty and commenced my self-inflicted . Two yards further I found myself lying across the wall, my legs hanging down one side, my head overhanging the other. The position proving suitable to my requirements, I maintained it. Inclination, again seizing its opportunity, urged me then and there to take a solemn never to smoke again. I am proud to write that through that hour of temptation I remained firm; strengthening myself by whispering to myself: “Never despair. What others can do, so can you. Is not all victory won through suffering?”
A for drink I had found, if possible, even yet more difficult of achievement. Spirits I almost despaired of. Once, confusing bottles, I drank some hair oil in mistake for whiskey, and found it decidedly less nauseous. But twice a week I would force myself to swallow a glass of beer, over myself insisting on my draining it to the bitter dregs. As reward afterwards, to take the taste out of my mouth, I would treat myself to chocolates; at the same time comforting myself by assuring myself that it was for my good, that there would come a day when I should really like it, and be grateful to myself for having been severe with myself.
In other and more sensible directions I sought also to progress. Gradually I was overcoming my shyness. It was a slow process. I found the best plan was not to mind being shy, to accept it as part of my temperament, and with others laugh at it. The coldness of an indifferent world is of service in hardening a too sensitive skin. The gradual rubbings of existence were rounding off my many corners. I became possible to my fellow creatures, and they to me. I began to take pleasure in their company.
By directing me to this particular house in Nelson Square, Fate had done to me a kindness. I flatter myself we were an interesting menagerie gathered together under its leaky roof. Mrs. Peedles, our , who slept in the basement with the slavey, had been an actress in Charles Keane's company at the old Princess's. There, it is true, she had played only parts. London, as she would explain to us was even then but a poor judge of art, with prejudices. Besides an actor-manager, by a wife—we understood. But in the Provinces there had been a career of glory: Juliet, Amy Robsart, Mrs. Haller in “The Stranger”—almost the entire roll of the “Legitimates”. Showed we any signs of disbelief, proof was forthcoming: handbills a yard long, rich in notes of : “On Tuesday Evening! By Special Desire!!! Blessington's Theatre! In the Meadow, adjoining the Arms!”—“On Saturday! Under the of Col. Sir William and the Officers of the 74th!!!! In the Corn Exchange!” Maybe it would convince us further were she to run through a passage here and there, say Lady Macbeth's sleep-walking scene, or from Ophelia's entrance in the fourth act? It would be no trouble; her memory was excellent. We would hasten to assure her of our perfect faith.
Listening to her, it was difficult, as she herself would frankly admit, to imagine her the once “arch Miss Lucretia Barry;” looking at her, to remember there had been an evening when she had been “the of every eye.” One found it necessary to oneself with of underlined extracts from ancient journals, much thumbed and , thoughtfully lent to one for the purpose. Since those days Fate had woven round her a of depression. She was now a faded, watery-eyed little woman, prone on the slightest to sit down suddenly on the nearest chair and at once commence a history of her troubles. Quite unconscious of this failing, it was an idea of hers that she was an exceptionally cheerful person.
“But there, fretting's no good. We must grin and bear things in this world,” she would conclude, wiping her eyes upon her apron. “It's better to laugh than to cry, I always say.” And to prove that this was no idle sentiment, she would laugh then and there upon the spot.
Much stair-climbing had upon her a shortness of breath, which no amount of panting in her resting moments was able to make good.
“You don't know 'ow to breathe,” explained our second floor front to her on one occasion, a young man; “you don't swallow it, you only gargle with it. Take a good and shut your mouth; don't be frightened of it; don't let it out again till it's done something: that's what it's 'ere for.”
He stood over her with his handkerchief pressed against her mouth to assist her; but it was of no use.
“There don't seem any room for it inside me,” she explained.
Bells had become to her the business of life; she lived listening for them. to her was a filling in of time while waiting for interruptions.
A bottle of whiskey fell into my hands that Christmas time, a present from a commercial traveller in the way of business. Not liking whiskey myself, it was no sacrifice for me to reserve it for the occasional comfort of Mrs. Peedles, when, breathless, with her hands to her side, she would sink upon the chair nearest to my door. Her poor, washed-out face would lighten at the suggestion.
“Ah, well,” she would reply, “I don't mind if I do. It's a poor heart that never rejoices.”
And then, her tongue unloosened, she would sit there and tell me stories of my , young men who like myself had taken her bed-sitting-rooms, and of the and misfortunes that had overtaken them. I gathered that a more unlucky house I could not have selected. A former of my own room, of whom I strangely reminded her, had written poetry on my very table. He was now in Portland doing five years for . Mrs. Peedles appeared to regard the two as merely different expressions of the same art. Another of her young men, as she affectionately called us, had been of studious ambition. His career up to a point appeared to have been brilliant. “What he mightn't have been,” according to Mrs. Peedles, there was practically no saying; what he happened to be at the moment of conversation was an unpromising of the Hanwell lunatic .
“I've always noticed it,” Mrs. Peedles would explain; “it's always the most deserving, those that try hardest, to whom trouble comes. I'm sure I don't know why.”
I was glad on the whole when that bottle of whiskey was finished. A second might have driven me to suicide.
There was no Mr. Peedles—at least, not for Mrs. Peedles, though as an individual he continued to exist. He had been “general utility” at the Princess's—the old terms were still in at that time—a fine figure of a man in his day, so I was given to understand, but one easily led away, especially by minxes. Mrs. Peedles bitterly of general utilities as people of not much use.
For working days Mrs. Peedles had one dress and one cap, both black and void of ; but on Sundays and holidays she would appear metamorphosed. She had carefully preserved the bulk of her stage wardrobe, even to the paste-decked shoes and tinsel . Shapeless in classic as Hermia, or in brocade and as Lady Teazle, she would receive her few visitors on Sunday evenings, discarded puppets like herself, with whom the conversation was of gayer nights before their wires had been cut; or, her glory hid from the ribald street beneath a mackintosh, pay her few calls. Maybe it was the unusual excitement that then brought colour into her cheeks, that straightened and darkened her , at other times so singularly unobtrusive. Be this how it may, the change was , only the thin grey hair and the work-worn hands remaining for purposes of identification. Nor was the merely one of surface. Mrs. Peedles hung on her hook behind the kitchen door, , limp, discarded; out of the wardrobe with the silks and satins was lifted down to be put on as an undergarment Miss Lucretia Barry, like her costumes somewhat , somewhat , but still distinctly “arch.”
In the room next to me lived a law-writer and his wife. They were very old and poor. The fault was none of theirs. Despite copy-books , there is in this world such a thing as ill-luck-persistent, , that gradually wears away all power of resistance. I learned from them their history: it was hopelessly simple, hopelessly uninstructive. He had been a schoolmaster, she a pupil teacher; they had married young, and for a while the world had smiled upon them. Then came illness, attacking them both: nothing out of which any moral could be deduced, a mere case of bad drains resulting in typhoid fever. They had started again, saddled by debt, and after years of effort had succeeded in clearing themselves, only to fall again, this time in a friend. Nor was it even a case of folly: a poor man who had helped them in their trouble, hardly could they have done otherwise without proving themselves ungrateful. And so on, a tedious tale, commonplace, trivial. Now listless, patient, hard working, they had arrived at an animal-like to their fate, content so long as they could obtain the bare necessities of existence, passive when these were not forthcoming, their interest in life limited to the one luxury of the poor—an occasional glass of beer or spirits. Often days would go by without his obtaining any work, and then they would more or less starve. Law documents are generally given out to such men in the evening, to be returned finished the next morning. Waking in the night, I would hear through the thin wooden partition that divided our rooms the even scratching of his pen.
Thus cheek by jowl we worked, I my side of the screen, he his: youth and age, hope and realisation.
Out of him my fears fashioned a vision of the future. Past his door I would slink on tiptoe, meeting him upon the stairs. Once had not he said to himself: “The world's mine ?” May not the voices of the night have proclaimed him also king? Might I not be but an idle dreamer, mistaking desire for power? Would not the world prove stronger than I? At such times I would see my life before me: the clerkship at thirty shillings a week rising by slow instalments, it may be, to one hundred and fifty a year; the four-roomed house at Brixton; the girl wife, pretty, perhaps, but sinking so soon into the slatternly woman; the squalling children. How could I, unaided, expect to raise myself from the ruck? Was not this the more likely picture?
Our second floor front was a young fellow in the commercial line. Jarman was Young London personified—blatant yet kind-hearted; aggressively self-assertive, generous to a fault; cunning, yet at the same time frank; shrewd, cheery, and full of pluck. “Never say die” was his motto, and anything less dead it would be difficult to imagine. All day long he was noisy, and all night long he snored. He woke with a start, bathed like a , sang while , roared for his boots, and whistled during his breakfast. His entrance and exit were always to an orchestration of banging doors, directions concerning his meals shouted at the top of his voice as he up or down the stairs, the and of brooms and pails flying before his feet. His departure always left behind it the suggestion that the house was now to let; it came almost as a shock to meet a human being on the landing. He would have conveyed an atmosphere of to the Egyptian pyramids.
Sometimes carrying his own supper-tray, arranged for two, he would march into my room. At first, resenting his familiarity, I would hint at my desire to be alone, would explain that I was busy.
“You fire away, Shakespeare Redivivus,” he would reply. “Don't delay the tragedy. Why should London wait? I'll keep quiet.”
But his notion of keeping quiet was to retire into a corner and there amuse himself by a tragedy of his own in a whisper, accompanied by appropriate gesture.
“Ah, ah!” I would hear him muttering to himself, “I 'ave killed 'er good old father; I 'ave falsely accused 'er young man of all the crimes that I 'ave myself committed; I 'ave robbed 'er of 'er ancestral estates. Yet she loves me not! It is streeange!” Then changing his to a falsetto: “It is a cold and dismal night: the snow falls fast. I will leave me 'at and umbrella be'ind the door and go out for a walk with the chee-ild. Aha! who is this? 'E also 'as forgotten 'is umbrella. Ah, now I know 'im in the pitch dark by 'is cigarette! , murderer, silly josser! it is you!” Then with lightning change of voice and gesture: “Mary, I love yer!” “Sir Jasper Murgatroyd, let me avail myself of this opportunity to tell you what I think of you—” “No, no; the 'ouses close in 'alf an hour; there is not tee-ime. Fly with me instead!” “Never! Un'and me!” “'Ear me! Ah, what 'ave I done? I 'ave slipped upon a piece of orange peel and broke me 'ead! If you will kindly ask them to turn off the snow and give me a little moonlight, I will confess all.”
Finding it (much to Jarman's surprise) impossible to renew the thread of my work, I would abandon my attempts at literature, and instead listen to his talk, which was always interesting. His conversation was, it is true, generally about himself, but it was none the less attractive on that account. His love affairs, which appeared to be numerous, formed his chief topic. There was no reserve about Jarman: his life contained no secret . What he “told her straight,” what she “up and said to him” in reply was for all the world that cared to hear. So far his search after the ideal had met with but ill success.
“Girls,” he would say, “they're all alike, till you know 'em. So long as they're trying to palm themselves off on yer, they'll persuade you there isn't such another article in all the market. When they've got yer order—ah, then yer find out what they're really made of. And you take it from me, 'Omer Junior, most of 'em are put together cheap. Bah! it sickens me sometimes to read the way you paper-stainers talk about 'em—angels, goddesses, fairies! They've just been getting at yer. You're giving 'em just the price they're asking without examining the article. Girls ain't a special make, like what you seem to think 'em. We're all turned out of the same old slop shop.”
“Not that I say, mind yer,” he would continue, “that there are none of the right sort. They're to be 'ad—real good 'uns. All I say is, taking 'em at their own valuation ain't the way to do business with 'em.”
What he was on the look out for—to quote his own description—was a really first class article, not something from which the paint would come off almost before you got it home.
“They're to be found,” he would cheerfully affirm, “but you've got to look for 'em. They're not the sort that advertises.”
Behind Jarman in the second floor back resided one whom Jarman had nicknamed “The Lady 'Ortensia.” I believe before my arrival there had been love passages between the two; but neither of them, so I gathered, had upon closer satisfied the other's standard. Their present attitude towards each other was that of insult thinly veiled under exaggerated politeness. Miss Rosina Sellars was, in her own language, a “lady assistant,” in common , a barmaid at the Ludgate Hill Station room. She was a large, flabby young woman. With less powder, her might by admirers have been termed creamy; as it was, it presented the appearance rather of underdone . To be on all occasions “quite the lady” was her pride. There were those who held the angle of her dignity to be exaggerated. Jarman would beg her for her own sake to be more careful lest one day she should fall down and hurt herself. On the other hand, her bearing was certainly calculated to check familiarity. Even ' clerks—young men as a class with the bump of but poorly developed—would in her presence and grow hesitating. She had cultivated the art of not noticing to something approaching perfection. She could draw the noisiest customer a glass of beer, which he had never ordered; exchange it for three of whiskey, which he had; take his money and return him his change without ever seeing him, hearing him, or knowing he was there. It shattered the self-assertion of the youngest of commercial travellers. Her tone and manner, outside rare moments of excitement, were suggestive of an offended but forgiving . Jarman invariably passed her with his coat collar turned up to his ears, and even thus protected might have been observed to shiver. Her stare, in conjunction with her “I beg your pardon!” was a moral douche that would have rendered apologetic and explanatory Don Juan himself.
To me she was always gracious, which by contrast to her general attitude towards my sex of studied , I confess flattered me. She was good enough to observe to Mrs. Peedles, who repeated it to me, that I was the only gentleman in the house who knew how to behave himself.
The entire first floor was occupied by an Irishman and—they never the matter themselves, so hardly is there need for me to do so. She was a charming little dark-eyed woman, an ex-tight-rope dancer, and always greatly offended Mrs. Peedles by claiming Miss Lucretia Barry as a sister artiste.
“Of course I don't know how it may be now,” would reply Mrs. Peedles, with some slight ; “but in my time we ladies of the stage used to look down upon dancers and such sort. Of course, no offence to you, Mrs. O'Kelly.”
Neither of them was in the least offended.
“Sure, Mrs. Peedles, ye could never have looked down upon the Signora,” the O'Kelly would answer laughing. “Ye had to lie back and look up to her. Why, I've got the crick in me neck to this day!”
“Ah! my dear, and you don't know how nervous I was when glancing down I'd see his handsome face just me, thinking that with one false step I might spoil it for ever,” would reply the Signora.
“Me darling! I'd have died happy, just in loveliness!” would return the O'Kelly; and he and the Signora would rush into each other's arms, and the sound of their kisses would quite excite the little slavey down the stairs outside.
He was a barrister attached in theory to the Western Circuit; in practice, somewhat indifferent to it, much more attached to the lower of Bohemia and the Signora. At the present he was earning all sufficient for the simple needs of himself and the Signora as a teacher of music and singing. His method was simple and suited admirably the locality. Unless requested, he never troubled his pupils with such things as scales and exercises. His plan was to discover the song the young man fancied himself singing, the particular the young lady to knock out of the piano, and to teach it to them. Was it “Tom ?” Well and good. Come on; follow your leader. The O'Kelly would sing the first line.
“Now then, try that. Don't be afraid. Just open yer mouth and gave it tongue. That's all right. Everything has a beginning. Sure, later on, we'll get the time and
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