ALADDIN OF LONDON
Author of "The Hundred Days," "A Gentleman's Gentleman," "Doctor Xavier," "The Lady Evelyn," etc., etc.
Illustrated by Frank Parker
New York Empire Book Company Publishers
Copyright, 1907, by Max Pemberton. Entered at Stationers' Hall. All rights reserved.
I. THE HALL BY UNION STREET 5
II. ALBAN KENNEDY MAKES A PROMISE 14
III. WITHOUT THE GATE 23
IV. THE CAVES 33
V. DISMISSAL 45
VI. THE STRANGER 56
VII. THE HOUSE OF THE FIVE GABLES 62
VIII. ALBAN KENNEDY DINES 71
IX. ANNA GESSNER 79
X. RICHARD GESSNER DEBATES AN ISSUE 90
XI. WHIRLWIND 109
XII. ALBAN SEES LIFE 121
XIII. ALBAN REVISITS UNION STREET 132
XIV. THERE ARE STRANGERS IN THE CAVES 145
XV. A STUDY IN INDIFFERENCE 152
XVI. THE INTRUDER 160
XVII. FATHER AND DAUGHTER 167
XVIII. FATE IRONICAL 182
XIX. THE PLOT HAS FAILED 192
XX. ALBAN GOES TO WARSAW 198
XXI. THE BOY IN THE BLUE BLOUSE 209
XXII. A FIGURE IN THE STRAW 224
XXIII. AN INSTRUCTION TO THE POLICE 231
XXIV. THE DAWN OF THE DAY 240
XXV. COUNT ZAMOYSKI SLEEPS 247
XXVI. AN INTERLUDE IN PICCADILLY 259
XXVII. THE PRISON YARD 268
XXVIII. THE MEETING 276
XXIX. ALBAN RETURNS TO LONDON 285
XXX. WE MEET OLD FRIENDS 294
XXXI. THE MAN UPON THE PAVEMENT 303
XXXII. IN THE NAME OF HUMANITY 307
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
"You love another woman, Alban Kennedy, and you have wished to forget my daughter." 132
A very orgy of blood and slaughter; a carnival of whips. 198
"Why do you come here?" she asked him wildly. 267
ALADDIN OF LONDON
THE HALL BY UNION STREET
The orator was not eloquent; but he had told a human story and all listened with respect. When he paused and looked upward it seemed to many that a light of justice shone upon his haggard face while the tears rolled unwiped down his ragged jerkin. His lank, unkempt hair, caught by the draught from the open doors at the far end of the hall, streamed behind him in grotesque profusion. His hands were clenched and his lips compressed. That which he had told to the sea of questioning faces below him was the story of his life. The name which he had uttered with an oath upon his lips was the name of the man who had deprived him of riches and of liberty. When he essayed to add a woman's name and to speak of the wrongs which had been done her, the power of utterance left him in an instant and he stood there gasping, his eyes toward the light which none but he could see; a prayer of gratitude upon his lips because he had found the man and would repay.
Look down upon this audience and you shall see a heterogeneous assembly such as London alone of the cities can show you. The hall is a crazy building enough, not a hundred yards from the Commercial Road at Whitechapel. The time is the spring of the year 1903—the hour is eight o'clock at night. Ostensibly a meeting to discuss the news which had come that day from the chiefs of the Revolutionaries in Warsaw, the discussion had been diverted, as such discussions invariably are, to a recital of personal wrongs and of individual resolutions—even to mad talk of the conquest of the world and the crowning of King Anarchy. And to this the wild Asiatics and the sad-faced Poles listened alike with rare murmurs and odd contortions of limbs and body. Let Paul Boriskoff of Minsk be the orator and they knew that the red flag would fly. But never before has Boriskoff been seen in tears and the spectacle enchained their attention as no mere rhetoric could have done.
A man's confession, if it be honest, must ever be a profoundly interesting document. Boriskoff, the Pole, did not hold these people spellbound by the vigor of his denunciation or the rhythmic chant of his anger. He had begun in a quiet voice, welcoming the news from Warsaw and the account of the assassination of the Deputy Governor Lebinsky. From that he passed to the old question, why does authority remain in any city at all? This London that sleeps so securely, does it ever awake to remember the unnumbered hosts which pitch their tents in the courts and alleys of Whitechapel? "Put rifles into the hands of a hundred thousand men who can be found to-night," he had said, "and where is your British Government to-morrow? The police—they would be but as dead leaves under the feet of a mighty multitude. The soldiers! Friends," he put it to them, "do you ever ask yourselves how many soldiers there are in the barracks of London to-night and what would happen to them if the people were armed? I say to you that the house would fall as a house of cards; the rich would flee; the poor would reign. And you who know this for a truth, what do you answer to me? That London harbors you, that London feeds you—aye, with the food of swine in the kennels of the dogs."
Men nodded their heads to this and some of the women tittered behind their ragged shawls. They had heard it all so often—the grand assault by numbers; the rifle shots ringing out in the sleeping streets by Piccadilly; the sack of Park Lane; the flight of the Government; the downfall of what is and the establishment of what might be. If they believed it possible, they had sense enough to remember that a sacked city of amnesty would be the poorest tribute to their own sagacity. At least London did not flog them. Their wives and sisters were not here dragged to the police stations to be brutally lashed at the command of any underling they had offended. Applause for Boriskoff and his sound and fury might be interpreted as a concession to their vanity. "We could do all this," they seemed to say; "if we forbear, let London be grateful." As for Boriskoff, he had talked so many times in such a strain that a sudden change in voice and matter surprised them beyond words. What had happened to him, then? Was the fellow mad when he began to speak of the copper mines and the days of slavery he had spent therein?
A hush fell upon the hall when the demagogue struck this unaccustomed note; rude gas flares shed an ugly yellow glow upon faces which everywhere asked an unspoken question. What had copper mines to do with the news from Warsaw, and what had they to do with this assembly? Presently, however, it came to the people that they were listening to the story of a wrong, that the pages of a human drama were being unfolded before them. In glowing words the speaker painted the miner's life and that of the stokers who kept the furnaces. What a living hell that labor had been. There were six operations in refining the copper, he said, and he had served years of apprenticeship to each of them. Hungry and faint and weary he had kept watch half the night at the furnace's door and returned to his home at dawn to see white faces half buried in the ragged beds of his house or to hear the child he loved crying for the food he could not bring. And in those night watches the great idea had come to him.
"Friends," he said, "the first conception of the Meltka furnace was mine. The white heat of the night gave it to me; a child's cry, 'thou art my father and thou wilt save me,' was my inspiration. Some of you will have heard that there are smelting works to-day where the sulphurous acid, which copper pyrites supplies when it is roasted, is used for the manufacture of sulphuric acid. That was my discovery. Many have claimed it since, but the Meltka furnace was mine—as God is in heaven it was mine. Why, then, do I stand among you wanting bread, I who should own the riches of kings? My friends, I will tell you. A devil stole my secret from me and has traded it in the markets of the world. I trusted him. I was poor and he was rich. 'Sell for me and share my gains,' I said. His honor would be my protection, I thought, his knowledge my security. Ah, God, what reward had I? He named me to the police and their lashes cut the flesh from my body. I lay three years in the prison at Irkutsk and five at Saghalin. The white faces were turned to the earth they sprang from, my son was heard at the foot of God's throne when they bade me go and set my foot in Poland no more. This I knew even in that island of blood and death. Letters had come to me from my dear wife; the Committee had kept me informed even there at the end of the earth. I knew that my home had perished; that of all my family, my daughter Lois alone remained to me; I knew that the days of the tyranny were numbered and that I, even I, might yet have my work to do. Did they keep me from Poland? I tell you that I lived there three years in spite of them, searching for the man who should answer me. Maxim Gogol, where had he hidden himself? The tale at the mines was that he had gone to America, sold his interest and embarked in new ventures. I wrote to our friends in New York and they knew nothing of such a man. I had search made for him in Berlin, in Vienna and Paris. The years were not too swift for my patience, but the harvest went ungathered. I came to London and bent my neck to this yoke of starvation and eternal night. I have worked sixteen hours a day in the foul holds of ships that I might husband my desire and repay. Friends, ten days ago in London I passed the man I am seeking and knew him for my own. Maxim Gogol may hide from me no more. With these eyes have I seen him—ah, God give me strength to speak of it—with these eyes have I seen him, with these hands have I touched him, with this voice have I accused him. He lives and he is mine—to suffer as I have suffered, to repay as I have paid—until the eternal justice of God shall decide between us both."
There would have been loud applause in any other assembly upon the conclusion of such an impassioned if verbally conventional an harangue; but these Asiatics who heard Paul Boriskoff, who watched the tears stream down his hollowed cheeks and beheld the face uplifted as in ecstasy, had no applause to give him. Had not they also suffered as he had suffered? What wrong of his had not been, in some phase or other, a wrong of theirs? How many of them had lost children well beloved, had known starvation and the sweater's block? Such sympathy as they had to give was rather the cold systematical pity of their order which ever made the individual's cause its own. This unknown Maxim Gogol, if he were indeed in London so much the worse for him. The chosen hand would strike him down when his hour had come—even if it were not the hand of the man he had wronged. In so far as Boriskoff betrayed intense emotion before them, it may be that they despised him. What nation had been made free by tears? How would weeping put bread into the children's mouths? This was the sentiment immediately expressed by a lank-haired Pole who followed the speaker. Let Paul Boriskoff write out his case and the Committee would consider it, he said. If Maxim Gogol were adjudged guilty, let him be punished. For himself he would spare neither man, woman, or child sheltered in the house of the oppressor. A story had been told to them of an unusual order. He did not wholly regret that Paul Boriskoff had not made a fortune, for, had he done so, he would not be a brother among them to-night. Let him be assured of their sympathy. The Committee would hear him when and where he wished.
There were other speakers in a similar mood, but the immediate interest in the dramatic recital quickly evaporated. A little desultory talk was followed by the serving of vodki and of cups of steaming coffee to the women. The younger people at the far end of the hall, who had been admitted to hear the music which should justify the gathering, grew weary of waiting and pushed their way into the street. There they formed little companies to speak, not of the strange entertainment which had been provided for them, but of commonplace affairs—the elder women of infantile sufferings, the girls of the songs they had heard on Saturday at the Aldgate Empire or of the shocking taste in feathers of more favored rivals. But here and there a black-eyed daughter of Poland or a fair-haired Circassian edged away discreetly from the company and was as warily followed by the necessary male. The dirty street caught snatches of music-hall melodies. Windows were opened above and wit exchanged. A voice, that of a young girl evidently, asked what had become of the Hunter, and to this another voice replied immediately, as though greatly satisfied, that Alban Kennedy had gone down toward the High Street with Lois Boriskoff.
"As if you didn't know, Chris. Gawsh, you should 'ave seen her feathers waggin' at the Union jess now. Fawther's took wiv the jumps, I hear, and Alb's gone to the Pav to give her hair. Oh, the fine gentleming—I seed his poor toes through his bloomin' boots this night, s'welp me Gawd I did."
The admission was received with a shout of laughter from the window above, where a red-haired girl leaned pensively upon the rail of a broken balcony. The speaker, in her turn, moved away with a youth who asked her, with much unnecessary emphasis, "what the 'ell she had to do with Albey's feet and why she couldn't leave Chris Denham alone."
"If I ain't 'xactly gawn on Russian taller myself, wot's agen Albey a-doin' of it," he asked authoritatively. "Leave the lidy alone and don't arst no questions. They say as the old man is took with spasms round at the Union. S'welp me if Albey ain't in luck—at his time of life too."
He winked at the girl, who had put her arm boldly round his waist, and marched on with the proud consciousness that his cleverness had not failed to make a just impression. The red-haired girl of the pensive face still gazed dreamily down the court and her head inclined a little toward the earth as though she were listening for the sound of a footstep. Not only the dreamer of dreams in that den of squalor, this Alban Kennedy was her idol to-night as he had been the idol of fifty of her class since he came to live among them. What cared she for his ragged shoes or the frayed collar about his neck? Did not the whole community admit him to be a very aristocrat of aristocrats, a diamond of class in a quarry of ashes, a figure at once mysterious and heroical? And this knight of the East, what irony led him away with that white-faced Pole, Lois Boriskoff? What did he see in her? What was she to him?
The pensive head was withdrawn sadly from the window at last. Silence fell in the dismal court. The Russians who had been breathing fire and vengeance were now eating smoked sturgeon and drinking vodki. A man played the fiddle to them and some danced. After all, life has something else than the story of wrong to tell us sometimes.
ALBAN KENNEDY MAKES A PROMISE
The boy and the girl halted together by one of the great lights at the corner of the Commercial Road and there they spoke of the strange confession which had just fallen from Paul Boriskoff's lips. Little Lois, white-faced as a mime at the theatre, her black hair tousled and unkempt, her eyes shining almost with the brightness of fever, declared all her heart to the gentle Alban and implored him for God's sake to take her from London and this pitiful home. He, as discreet as she was rash, pitied her from his heart, but would not admit as much.
"If I could only speak Polish, Lois—but you know I can't," he said. "Bread and salt, that's about what I should get in your country—and perhaps be able to count the nails in the soles of my boots. What's the good of telling me all about it? I saw that your father was angry, but you people are always angry. And, little girl, he does his best for you. Never forget that—he would sooner lose anything on earth than you."
"I don't believe it," said the girl, tossing her head angrily, "what's he care about anything but that ole machine of his which he says they stole from him? Ten hours have I been sewing to-day, Alb, and ten it will be to-morrow. Truth, dear, upon my soul. What's father care so long as the kettle boils and he can read the papers? And you're no better—you'd take me away if you were—right away from here to the gardens where he couldn't find me, and no one but you would ever find me any more. That's what you'd do if you were as I want you to be. But you ain't, Alb—you'll never care for any girl—now will you, Alb, dear?"
She clutched his arm and pressed closely to him, regardless of passers-by so accustomed to love-making on the pavements that neither man nor woman turned a head because of it. Alban Kennedy, however, was frankly ashamed of the whole circumstance, and he pushed the girl away from him as though her very touch offended.
"Look here, Lois, that's nonsense—let's go and see something, let's go into the New Empire for an hour. Your father will be all right when he's had a glass or two of vodki. You know he's always like this when there's been news from Warsaw. Let's go and hear a turn and then you can tell me what you want me to do."
They walked on a little way, she clinging to his arm timidly and looking up often into his eyes as though for some expression of that affection she hungered for unceasingly. The "Court" had named them for lovers long ago, but the women declared that such an aristocrat as Alban Kennedy would look twice before he put his neck into Paul Boriskoff's matrimonial halter.
"A lot of good the Empire will do me to-night," Lois exclaimed presently. "I feel more like dancing on my own grave than seeing other people do it. What with father's temper and your cold shoulder, Alb—"
"Lois, that's unfair, dear; you know that I am sorry. But what can I do, what can any one do for men who talk such nonsense as those fellows in that hall? 'Seize London and the Government'—you said it was that, didn't you?—well, they're much more likely to get brain fever and wake up in the hospital. That's what I shall tell your father if he asks me. And, Lois, how can you and I talk about anything serious when I haven't a shilling to call my own and your father won't let you out of his sight lest he should want something. It will all be different soon—bad things always are. I shall make a fortune myself some day—I'm certain of it as though I had the money already in the bank. People who make fortunes always know that they are going to do so. I shall make a lot of money and then come back for you—just my little Lois sewing at the window, the same old dirty court, the same ragged fellows talking about sacking London, the same faces everywhere—but Lois unchanged and waiting for me—now isn't it that, dear, won't you be unchanged when I come back for you?"
They stood for an instant in the shadow of a shuttered shop and, leaping up at his question, she lifted warm red lips to his own—and the girl of seventeen and the boy of mature twenty kissed as ardently as lovers newly sworn to eternal devotion.
"I do love you, Alb," she cried, "I shall never love any other man—straight, my dear, though there ain't much use in a-telling you. Oh, Alb, if you meant it, you wouldn't leave me in this awful place; you'd take me away, darling, where I could see the fields and the gardens. I'd come, Alb, as true as death—I'd go this night if you arst me, straight away never to come back—if it were to sleep on the hard road and beg my bread from house to house—I'd go with you, Alb, as heaven hears me, I'd be an honest wife to you and you should never regret the day. What's to keep us, Alb, dear? Oh, we're fine rich, ain't we, both of us, you with your fifteen shillings from the yard and me with nine and six from the fronts. Gawd's truth, Rothschild ain't nothink to you and me, Alb, when we've the mind to play the great lidy and gentleman. Do you know that I lay abed some nights and try to think as it's a kerridge and pair and you a-sittin' beside of me and nothink round us but the green fields and the blue sky, and nothink never more to do but jess ride on with your hand in mine and the sun to shine upon us. Lord, what a thing it is to wake up then, Alb, and 'ear the caller cryin' five and see my father like a white ghost at the door. And that's wot's got to go on to the end—you know it is; you put me off 'cause you think it'll please me, same as you put Chris Denham off when you danced with her at the Institoot Ball. You won't never love no girl truly, Alb—it isn't in you, my dear. You're born above us and we never shall forget it, not none of us as I'm alive to-night."
She turned away her head to hide the tears gathering in her black eyes, while Alban's only answer to her was a firm pressure upon the little white hand he held in his own and a quicker step upon the crowded pavement. Perhaps he understood that the child spoke the truth, but of this he could not be a wise judge. His father had been a poor East End parson, his mother was the daughter of an obstinate and flinty Sheffield steel factor, who first disowned her for marrying a curate and then went through the bankruptcy court as a protest against American competition. So far Alban knew himself to be an aristocrat—and yet how could he forget that among that very company of Revolutionaries he had so lately quitted there were sons of men whose nobility was older than Russia herself. That he understood so much singled him out immediately as a youth of strange gifts and abnormal insight—but such, indeed, he was, and as such he knew himself to be.
"I won't quarrel with you, Lois, though I see that you wish it, dear," he said presently, "you know I don't care for Chris Denham and what's the good of talking about her. Let's go and cheer up—I'm sure we can do with a bit and that's the plain truth, now isn't it, Lois?"
He squeezed her arm and drew her closer to him. At the Empire they found two gallery seats and watched a Japanese acrobat balance himself upon five hoops and a ladder. A lady in far from immaculate evening dress, who sang of a flowing river which possessed eternal and immutable qualities chiefly concerned with love and locks and unswerving fidelity, appealed to little Lois' sentiment and she looked up at Alb whenever the refrain recurred as much as to say, "That is how I should love you." So many other couples about them were squeezing hands and cuddling waists that no one took any notice of their affability or thought it odd. A drunken sailor behind them kept asking the company with maudlin reiteration what time the last train left for Plymouth, but beyond crying "hush" nobody rebuked him. In truth, the young people had come there to make love, and when the lights were turned down and the curtain of the biograph revealed, the place seemed paradise itself.
Lois crept very close to Alban during this part of the entertainment, nor did he repulse her. Moments there were undeniably when he had a great tenderness toward her; moments when she lay in his embrace as some pure gift from this haven of darkness and of evil, a fragile helpless figure of a girlhood he idolized. Then, perchance, he loved her as Lois Boriskoff hungered for love, with the supreme devotion, the abject surrender of his manhood.
No meaner taint of passion inspired these outbreaks, nor might the most critical student of character have found them blameworthy. Alban Kennedy's rule of life defied scrutiny. His ignorance was often that of a child, his faith that of a trusting woman—and yet he had traits of strength which would have done no dishonor to those in the highest places. Lois loved him and there were hours when he responded wholly to her love and yet had no more thought of evil in his response than of doing any of those forbidding things against which his dead mother had schooled him so tenderly. Here were two little outcasts from the civilized world—why should they not creep close together for that sympathy and loving kindness which destiny had denied them.
"I darsn't be late to-night, Alb," Lois said when the biograph was over and they had left the hall, "you know how father was. I must go back and get his supper."
"Did he really mean all that about the copper mines and his invention?" Alban asked her in his practical way, and added, "Of course I couldn't understand much of it, but I think it's pretty awful to see a man crying, don't you, Lois?"
"Father does that often," she rejoined, "often when he's alone. I might not be in the world at all, Alb, for all he thinks of me. Some one robbed him, you know, and just lately he thinks he's found the man in London. What's the good of it all—who's goin' to help a poor Pole get his rights back? Oh, yer bloomin' law and order, a lot we sees of you in Thrawl Street, so help me funny. That's what I tell father when he talks about his rights. We'll take ours home with us to Kingdom come and nobody know much about 'em when we get there. A sight of good it is cryin' out for them in this world, Alb—now ain't it, dear?"
Alban was in the habit of taking questions very seriously, and he took this one just as though she had put it in the best of good faith.
"I can't make head or tail of things, Lois," he said stoically, "fact is, I've given up trying. Why does my father die without sixpence after serving God all his life, and another man, who has served the devil, go under worth thousands? That's what puzzles me. And they tell us it will all come right some day, just as we're all going to drive motor-cars when the Socialists get in. Wouldn't I be selling mine cheap to-night if anyone came along and offered me five pounds for it—wouldn't I say 'take it' and jolly glad to get the money. Why, Lois, dear, think what we would do with five pounds."
"Go to Southend for Easter, Alb."
"Buy you a pretty ring and take you to the Crystal Palace."
"Drive a pony to Epping, Alb, and come back in the moonlight."
"Down to Brighton for the Saturday and two in the water together."
"Flash it on 'em in Thrawl Street and make Chris Denham cry."
They laughed together and cuddled joyously at a dream so bewildering. Their united wealth that night was three shillings, of which Alb had two and four pence. What untold possibilities in five pounds, what sunshine and laughter and joy. Ah, that the dark court should be waiting for them, the squalor, the misery, the woe of it. Who can wonder that the shadows so soon engulfed them?
"Kiss me, Alb," she said at the corner, "shall I see you to-morrow night, dear?"
"Outside the Pav at nine. You can tell me how your father took it. Say I hope he'll get his rights. I think he always liked me rather, Lois."
"A sight more than ever he liked me, Alb, and that's truth. Ah, my dear, you'll take me away from here some day, won't you, Alb? You'll take me away where none shall ever know, where I shall see the world and forget what I have been. Kiss me, Alb—I'm that low to-night, dear, I could cry my heart out."
He obeyed her instantly. A voice of human suffering never failed to make an instant appeal to him.
"As true as God's in heaven, if ever I get rich, I'll come first to Lois with the story," he said—and so he bent and kissed her on the lips as gently as though she had been his little sister.
WITHOUT THE GATE
Alban's garret lay within a stone's throw of the tenement occupied by the Boriskoffs; but, in truth, it knew very little of him. They called him "The Hunter," in the courts and alleys round about; and this was as much as to say that his habits were predatory. He loved to roam afar in quest, not of material booty, but of mental sensation. An imagination that was simply wonderful helped him upon his way. He had but to stand at the gate of a palace to become in an instant one of those who peopled it. He could create himself king, or prince, or bishop as the mood took him. If a holiday sent him to the theatre, he was the hero or villain at his choice. In church he would preach well-imagined sermons to spellbound listeners. The streets of the West End were his true world—the gate without the scene of his mental pleasures.
He had no friends among the youths and lads of Thrawl Street and its environment, nor did he seek them. Those who hung about him were soon repelled by his secretive manner and a diffidence which was little more than natural shyness. If he fell now and then into the speech of the alleys, constant association was responsible for the lapse. Sometimes, it is true, an acquaintance would defy the snub and thrust himself stubbornly upon the unwilling wanderer. Alban was never unkind to such as these. He pitied these folk from his very heart; but before them all, he pitied himself.
His favorite walk was to the precincts of Westminster School, where he had spent two short terms before his father died. The influence of this life had never quite passed away. Alban would steal across London by night and stand at the gate of Little Dean's Yard as though wondering still what justice or right of destiny had driven him forth. He would haunt St. Vincent's Square on Saturday afternoons, and, taking his stand among all the little ragged boys who watched the cricket or football, he would, in imagination, become a "pink" delighting the multitude by a century or kicking goals so many that the very Press was startled. In the intervals he revisited the Abbey and tried to remember the service as he had known it when a schoolboy. The sonorous words of Tudor divines remained within his memory, but the heart of them had gone out. What had he to be thankful for now? Did he not earn his bitter bread by a task so laborious that the very poor might shun it. His father would have made an engineer of him if he had lived—so much had been quite decided. He could tell you the names of lads who had been at Westminster with him and were now at Oxford or Cambridge enjoying those young years which no subsequent fortune can recall. What had he done to the God who ruled the world that these were denied to him? Was he not born a gentleman, as the world understands the term? Had he not worn good clothes, adored a loving mother, been educated in his early days in those vain accomplishments which society demands from its children? And now he was an "East-ender," down at heel and half starved; and there were not three people in all the city who would care a straw whether he lived or died.
This was the lad who went westward that night of the meeting in Union Street, and such were his frequent thoughts. None would have taken him for what he was; few who passed him by would have guessed what his earlier years had been. The old gray check suit, frayed at the edges, close buttoned and shabby, was just such a suit as any loafer out of Union Street might have worn. His hollow cheeks betrayed his poverty. He walked with his hands thrust deep into his pockets, his shoulders slightly bent, his eyes roving from face to face as he numbered the wayfarers and speculated upon their fortunes and their future. Two or three friends who hailed him were answered by a quickening of his step and a curt nod of the handsome head. Alb's "curl," a fair flaxen curl upon a broad white forehead, had become a jest in Thrawl Street. "'E throws it at yer," the youths said—and this was no untrue description.
Alban walked swiftly up the Whitechapel Road and was going on by Aldgate Station when the Reverend "Jimmy" Dale, as all the district called the cheery curate of St. Wilfred's Church, slapped him heartily on the shoulder and asked why on earth he wasted the precious hours when he might be in bed and asleep.
"Now, my dear fellow, do you really think it is wise? I am here because I have just been to one of those exhibitions of unadorned gluttony they call a City Banquet. Do you know, Alban, that I don't want to hear of food and drink again for a month. It's perfectly terrible to think that men can do such things when I could name five hundred children who will go wanting bread to-morrow."
Alban rejoined in his own blunt way.
"Then why do you go?" was his disconcerting question.
"To beg of them, that's why I go. They are not uncharitable—I will hold to it anywhere. And, I suppose, from a worldly point of view, it was a very good dinner. Now, let us walk back together, Alban. I want to talk to you very much."
"About what, sir?"
"Oh, about lots of things. Why don't you join the cricket club, Alban?"
"I haven't got the money, sir."
"But surely—five shillings, my dear boy—and only once a year."
"If you haven't got the five shillings, it doesn't make any difference how many times a year it is."
"Well, well, I think I must write to Sir James Hogg about you. He was telling me to-night—"
"If he sent me the money, I'd return it to him. I'm not a beggar, Mr. Dale."
"But are you not very proud, Alban?"
"Would you let anybody give you five shillings—for yourself, Mr. Dale?"
"That would depend how he offered it. In the plate I should certainly consider it acceptable."
"Yes, but sent to you in a letter because you were hard up, you know. I'm certain you wouldn't. No decent fellow would. When I can afford to play cricket, I'll play it. Good night, Mr. Dale. I'm not going back just now."
The curate shook his head protestingly.
"Do you know it is twelve o'clock, Alban?"
"Just the time the fun begins—in the world—over there, sir."
He looked up at the Western sky aglow with that crimson haze which stands for the zenith of London's night. The Reverend "Jimmy" Dale had abandoned long ago the idea of understanding Alban Kennedy. "He will either die in a lunatic asylum or make his fortune," he said to himself—and all subsequent happenings did not alter this dogged opinion. The fellow was either a lunatic or an original. "Jimmy" Dale, who had rowed in the Trinity second boat, did not wholly appreciate either species.
"What is the world to you, Alban—is not sleep better?"
"In a garret, sir, where you cannot breathe?"
"Oh, come, we must all be a little patient in adversity. I saw Mr. Browning at the works yesterday. He tells me that the firm is very pleased with you—you'll get a rise before long, Alban."
"Half a crown for being good. Enough to sole my boots. When I have shops of my own, I'll let the men live to begin with, sir. The shareholders can come afterwards."
"It would never do to preach that at a city dinner."
"Ah, sir, what's preached at a city dinner and what's true in Thrawl Street, Whitechapel, don't ride a tandem together. Ask a hungry man whether he'll have his mutton boiled or roast, and he'll tell you he doesn't care a damn. It's just the same with me—whether I sleep in a cellar or a garret, what's the odds? I'll be going on now, sir. You must feel tired after so much eating."
He turned, but not rudely, and pushing his way adroitly through the throng about the station disappeared in a moment. The curate shook his head and resumed his way moodily eastward, wondering if his momentary lapse from the straight and narrow way of self-sacrificing were indeed a sin. After all, it had been a very good dinner, and a man would be unwise to be influenced by a boy's argument. The Reverend "Jimmy" was a thousand miles from being a hypocrite, as his life's work showed, and this matter of the dinner really troubled him exceedingly. How many of his parishioners could have been fed for such an expenditure? On the other hand, city companies did a very great deal of good, and it would be churlish to object to their members dining together two or three times a year. In the end, he blamed the lad, Alban, for putting such thoughts into his head.
"The fellow's off to sleep in Hyde Park, I suppose," he said to himself, "or in one of his pirate's caves. What a story he could write if he had the talent. What a freak of chance which set him down here amongst us—well born and educated and yet as much a prisoner as the poorest. Some day we shall hear of him—I am convinced of it. We shall hear of Alban Kennedy and claim his acquaintance as wise people do when a man has made a success."
He carried the thought home with him, but laid it aside when he entered the clergy house, dark and stony and cheerless at such an hour. Alban was just halfway down the Strand by that time and debating whether he should sleep in the "caves," as he called those wonderful subterranean passages under Pall Mall and the Haymarket, or chance the climate upon a bench in Hyde Park. A chilly night of April drove him to the former resolution and he passed on quickly; by the theatres now empty of their audiences; through Trafalgar Square, where the clubs and the hotels were still brilliantly lighted; up dark Cockspur Street; through St. James' Square; and so to an abrupt halt at the door of a great house, open to the night and dismissing its guests.
Alban despised himself for doing it, but he could never resist the temptation of staring through the windows of any mansion where a party happened to be held. The light and life of it all made a sure appeal to him. He could criticise the figures of beautiful women and remain ignorant of the impassable abyss between their sphere and his own. Sometimes, he would try to study the faces thus revealed to him, as in the focus of a vision, and to say, "That woman is utterly vain," or again, "There is a doll who has not the sense of an East End flower girl." In a way he despised their ignorance of life and its terrible comedies and tragedies. Little Lois Boriskoff, he thought, must know more of human nature than any woman in those assemblies where, as the half-penny papers told him, cards and horses and motor-cars were the subjects chiefly talked about. It delighted him to imagine the abduction of one of these society beauties and her forcible detention for a month in Thrawl Street. How she would shudder and fear it all—and yet what human lessons might not she carry back with her. Let them show him a woman who could face such an ordeal unflinchingly and he would fall in love with her himself. The impertinence of his idea never once dawned upon him. He knew that his father's people had been formerly well-to-do and that his mother had often talked of birth and family. "I may be better than some of them after all," he reflected; and this was his armor against humiliation. What did money matter? The fine idealist of twenty, with a few coppers in his pocket, declared stoically that money was really of no consequence at all.
He lingered some five minutes outside the great house in St. James' Square, watching the couples in the rooms above, and particularly interested in one face which appeared in, and disappeared from, a brilliantly lighted alcove twice while he was standing there. A certain grace of girlhood attended this apparition; the dress was rich and costly and exquisitely made; but that which held Alban's closer attention was the fact that the wearer of it unquestionably was a Pole, and not unlike little Lois Boriskoff herself. He would not say, indeed, that the resemblance was striking—it might have been merely that of nationality. When the girl appeared for the second time, he admitted that the comparison was rather wild. None the less, he liked to think that she resembled Lois and might also have heard the news from Warsaw to-day. Evidently she was the daughter of some rich foreigner in London, for she talked and moved with Continental animation and grace. The type of face had always made a sure appeal to Alban. He liked those broad contrasts of color; the clear, almost white, skin; the bright red lips; the open expressive eyes fringed by deep and eloquent lashes. This unknown was taller than little Lois certainly—she had a maturer figure and altogether a better carriage; but the characteristics of her nationality were as sure—and the boy fell to wondering whether she was also capable of that winsome sentiment and jealous frenzy which dictated many of the seemingly inconsequent acts of the little heroine of Thrawl Street. This he imagined to be quite possible. "They are great as a nation," he thought, "but most of them are mad. I will tell Lois to-morrow that I have seen her sister in St. James' Square. I shouldn't wonder if she knew all about this house and the party—and Boriskoff will, if she doesn't."
He contented himself with this; and the girl having disappeared from the alcove and a footman announced, in a terrible voice, that Lady Smigg's carriage barred the way, he turned from the house and continued upon his way to the "caves." It was then nearly one o'clock, and save for an occasional hansom making a dash to a club door, St. James' Street was deserted. Alban took one swift look up and down, crossed the street at a run and disappeared down the court which led to those amazing "tombs" of which few in London save the night-birds and the builders so much as suspect the existence.
He did not go alone; he was not, as he thought, unwatched. A detective, commissioned by an unknown patron to follow him, crossed the road directly he had disappeared, and saying, "So that's the game," began to wonder if he also might dare the venture.
He, at least, knew well what he was doing and the class of person he would be likely to meet down there in the depths of which even the police were afraid.
The "labyrinth" beneath the West End of London was rediscovered in our own time when the foundations for the Carlton Hotel and his Majesty's Theatre were laid. It is a network of old cellars, subterranean passages and, it may even be, of disused conduits, extended from the corner of Suffolk Street, Pall Mall, away to the confines of St. James' Park—and, as more daring explorers aver, to the river Thames itself. Here is a very town of tunnels and arches, of odd angled rooms, of veritable caves and depths as dark as Styx. If, in a common way, it be shut by the circumstance of the buildings above to the riff-raff and night-hawks who would frequent it, there are seasons, nevertheless, when the laying of new foundations, the building of hotels and the demolition of ancient streets in the name of "improvement" fling its gates open to the more cunning of the "destitutes," and they flock there as rooks to a field newly sown.
Of these welcome opportunities, the building of the Carlton Hotel is the best remembered within recent times; but the erection of new houses off St. James' Street in the year 1903 brought the ladies and the gentlemen of the road again to its harborage; and they basked there for many weeks in undisputed possession. Molesting none and by none molested, it was an affair neither for the watchmen (whose glances askance earned them many a handsome supper) or for the police who had sufficient to do in the light of the street lamps that they should busy themselves with supposed irregularities where that light was not. The orgies thus became a nightly feature of the vagrant's life. There was no more popular hotel in London than the "Coal Hole," as the wits of the company delighted to style their habitation.
A city below a city! Indeed imagination might call it that. A replica of famous catacombs with horrid faces for your spectres, ghoulish women and unspeakable men groping in the darkness as though, vampire-like, afraid of the light. Why Alban Kennedy visited this place, he himself could not have said. Possibly a certain morbid horror of it attracted him. He had, admittedly, such a passport to the caves as may be the reward of a shabby appearance and a resolute air. The criminal company he met with believed that he also was a criminal. Enjoying their confidence because he had never excited their suspicion, they permitted him to lie his length before reddened embers and hear tales which fire the blood with every passion of anger and of hate. Here, in these caverns, he had seen men fight as dogs—with teeth and claws and resounding yells; he had heard the screams of a woman and the cries of helpless children. A sufficient sense of prudence compelled him to be but an apathetic spectator of these infamies. The one battle he had fought had been impotent to save the object of his chivalry.
When first he came here, heroic resolutions followed him. He had thrashed a ruffian who struck a woman, and narrowly escaped with his life for doing so. Henceforth he could but assent to a truce which implied mutual toleration; and yet he understood that his presence was not without its influence even on these irredeemables. Men called him "The Hunter," or in mockery "The Dook." He had done small services for one or two of them—even written a begging letter for a rogue who could not write at all, but posed as an "old public school man," fallen upon evil days. Alban was perfectly well aware that this was a shameless imposition, but his ideas of morality as it affected the relations of rich and poor were ever primitive and unstable. "If this old thief gets half a sovereign, what's it matter?" he would argue; "the other man stole his money, I suppose, and can well afford to pay up." Here was a gospel preached every day in Thrawl Street. He had never stopped to ask its truth.
Alban crossed St. James' Street furtively, and climbed, as an athlete should climb, the boarding which defended the entrance to this amazing habitation. A contented watchman, dozing by a comfortable fire, cared little who came or went and rarely bestirred himself to ask the question. There were two entrances to the caves: one cramped and difficult, the other broad and open; and you took your choice of them according to the position of the policeman on the beat. This night, or rather this morning, of the day following upon the meeting in Union Street, discovered Alban driven to the more hazardous way. His quick eye had detected, on the far side of the enclosure, an amiable flirtation between a man of law and a lady of the dusters; and avoiding both discreetly, he slipped into a trench of the newly made foundations and crawled as swiftly through an aperture which this descent revealed.
Here, laid bare by the picks and shovels of twentieth-century Trade Unionism, was a veritable Gothic arch, bricked up to the height of a tall man's waist, but open at the tympanum. Alban hoisted himself to the aperture and, slipping through, his feet discovered the reeking floor of a dank and dripping subway; and guiding himself now by hands outstretched and fingers touching the fungi of the walls, he went on with confidence until the roof lifted above him and the watch-fires of the confraternity were disclosed. He had come by now into a vast cellar not very far from the Carlton Hotel itself. There were offshoots everywhere, passages more remote, the arches as of crypts, smaller apartments, odd corners which had guarded the casks five hundred years ago. Each of these could show you its little company safe harbored for the night; each had some face from which Master Timidity might well avert his eyes. But Alban went in amongst them as though he had been their friend. They knew his very footstep, the older "lags" would declare.
"All well, Jack?"
"All well, old cove."
"The Panorama come along?"
"Straight art of the coffee shawp, s'help me blind."
"Ship come in?"
"Two tharsand next Toosday—same as usual."
A lanky hawker, lying full length upon a sack, his pipe glowing in the darkness, exchanged these pleasantries with Alban at the entrance. There were fires by here and there in these depths and the smoke was often suffocating. The huddled groups declared all grades of ill-fortune and of crime; from that of the "pauper parson" to the hoariest house-breaker "resting" for a season. Alban's little set, so far as he had a "set" at all, consisted of the sometime curate of a fashionable West End Church, known to the company as the Archbishop of Bloomsbury; the Lady Sarah, a blooming, red-cheeked girl who sold flowers in Regent Street, "the Panorama," an old showman's son who had not a sixpenny piece in his pocket, but whose schemes were invariably about to bring him in "two thousand next Tuesday morning"; and "Betty," a pretty, fair-haired lad, thrown on the streets God knows how or by what callous act of indifferent parentage. Regularly as the clock struck, this quartette would gather in a tiny "chapel" of the cellars and sleep about a fire kindled in a grate which might have baked meats for the Tudors. They spoke of the events of the day with moderation and wise philosophy. It would be different to-morrow. Such was ever their text.
"My lord the Duke is late. Does aught of fortune keep your nobility?"
The ex-parson made way for Alban, grandiloquently offering a niche upon the bare floor and a view of the reddening embers. The boy "Betty" was already asleep, while the Lady Sarah and "the Panorama" divided a fourpenny pie most faithfully between them. A reeking atmosphere of spirit (but not of water) testified to the general conviviality. A hum of conversation was borne in upon them from the greater cellar—at odd times a rough oath of protest or the mad complainings of a drunkard. For the most part, however, the night promised to be uneventful. Alban had never seen the Lady Sarah more gracious, and as for "the Panorama" he had no doubt whatever that his fortune was made.
"My contract for America's going through and I shall be out there with a show in a month," this wild youth said—and added patronizingly, "When I come back, it will be dinner upstairs, old chaps—and some of the best. Do you suppose that I could forget you? I would as soon forget my father's grave."
They heard him with respect—no one differing from him.
"I shall certainly be pleased to accept your kind invitation," said the Archbishop, "that is, should circumstance—and Providence—enable me to redeem the waistcoat, without which—eh—hem—I understand no visitor would be admitted to those noble precincts."
The Lady Sarah expressed her opinion even more decidedly.
"Don't 'e talk," she said pleasantly, "can't you 'ear the thick 'uns a rattlin' in his mouse-trap. Poor little man and 'im a horphin. Stun me mother if I ain't a goin' ter Jay's termerrer ter buy mournin' in honor of him."
"I presume," continued the Archbishop, "that we shall all be admitted to this entertainment as it were—that is—as the colloquial expression goes—on the nod. It will be enough to mention that we are the proprietor's friends."
"You shall have a season-ticket for life, Archbishop. Just you tell me where you want a church built and I'll see that it's done. Of course I don't mind your chaff—I'm dead in earnest and the money will be there."
"A real contract this time?" Alban suggested kindly.
"A real contract. I saw Philips about it to-day, and he knows a man who is Pierpont Morgan's cousin. We are to open in New York in September and be in San Francisco the following week."
"Rather a long journey, isn't it, old chap?"
"Oh, they do those things out there. I'm told you play Hamlet one night and Othello six hours afterwards, which is really the next night because of the long distances and the differences in the latitudes. Ask the Archbishop. I expect he hasn't forgotten all his geography."
"A Cambridge man," said the Archbishop, loftily, "despises geography. Heat, light, electricity, the pure and the impure mathematics—these are his proper study. I rise superior to the occasion and tell you that San Francisco is a long way from New York. The paper in which I wrapped a ham sandwich yesterday—the advertisement of a shipping company, I may inform you—brings that back to my recollection. San Francisco is the thickness of two slices of stale bread from the seaport you mention. And I believe there are Red Indians in between."
The Lady Sarah murmured lightly the refrain of the old song concerning houses which stood in that annoying position; but Alban had already lighted a cigarette and was watching the girl's face critically.
"You've had some luck to-day, Sarah?"
"A bloomin' prophet and that I won't deny. Gar'n, Dowie."
"But you did have some luck?"
"Sure and certain. What d'ye fink? A bit of a boy, same as 'Betty' 'ere, 'e comes up and says, 'What'll ye take fer the whole bloomin' caravan?' he says, 'for ter send ter a lidy?' 'Gentleman,' I says, 'I'm only a poor girl and a widered muver ter keep, and, gentleman, I can't tike less than two pound fer 'em sure and certain as there's a God in 'eaven, I can't.' 'Well,' says he, 'it's a blarsted swindle but I'll take 'em—and mind you deliver 'em ter the lidy yerself.' 'They shall go this very minute,' says I, 'and, oh, sir, God bless you both and may yer have long life and 'appiness ter-gether.' Strike me dead, wot d'yer think he said next? Why he arst me fer my bloomin' name, same as if I wus a Countess a steepin' art of a moter-kar at the door of Buckingem Peliss. 'What's yer name, girl?' says 'e. 'Sarah Geddes, an it please yer capting,' says I. 'Then send the bally flowers to Sarah Geddes,' says 'e, 'and take precious good care as she gets 'em.' Gawd's truth, yer could 'ave knocked me darn with a 'at pin. I never was took so suddin in all me life."
"I wonder you didn't have your dinner in the Carlton Hotel, Sarah."
"So I would 'a' done if I'd hev bed time ter chinge me dress. You orter know, Dook, as no lidy ever goes inter them plices in wot she's bin a wearin' afore she cleaned herself. I'ad ter go ter Marlborough 'Ouse ter tell the Prince of Wales, and that's wot kept me."
"Better luck next time, Sarah. So it only ran to a 'fourpenny' between you and 'the Panorama.'"
"You shall all dine with me next week," said the young man in question. "On my honor, I'll give you the best dinner you ever had in your life. As for Sarah here, I'm going to put her in a flower shop in Bond Street."
"Gar'n, silly, what 'ud I do in Bond Street? Much better buy the Archbishop a church."
The erstwhile clergyman did not take the suggestion, in good part.
"I have always doubted my ability to conduct the affairs of a parish methodically," he said, "that is—a little habit—a slight partiality to the drug called morphia is not in my favor. This, I am aware, is a drawback. The world judges my profession very harshly. A man in the city who counts the collection indifferently will certainly become Lord Mayor. The Establishment has no use for him—he is de trop, or as we might say, a drop too much. This I recognize in frankly declining our young friend's offer—with grateful thanks."
Sarah, the flower girl, seemed particularly amused by this frank admission. Feeling in the depth of her shawl she produced a capacious flask and a bundle of cigars.
"'Ere, boys," she said, "let's talk 'am and heggs. 'Ere's a drop of the best and five bob's worth of chimney afire, stun me mother if there ain't. I'm sick of talkin' and so's 'the Panerawma.' Light up yer sherbooks and think as you're in Buckingem Peliss. There ain't no 'arm thinkin' anyways."
"I dreamed last night," said the Archbishop very sadly, "that this cellar had become a cottage and that the sun was shining in it."
"I never dream," said "the Panorama," stoically; "put my head on the floor and I won't lift it until the clock strikes ten."
"Then begin now, my dear," exclaimed the Lady Sarah with a sudden tenderness, "put it there now and forget what London is ter you and me."
The words were uttered almost with a womanly tenderness, not without its influence upon the company. Some phrase spoken of Frivolity's mouth had touched this group of outcasts and spoken straight to their hearts. They bandied, pleasantries no more, but lighting the cigars—the Lady Sarah boldly charging a small clay pipe—they fell to an expressive silence, of introspection, it may be, or even of unutterable despair. The woman alone amongst them had not been cast down from a comparative altitude to this very abyss of destitution. For the others life was a vista far behind them; a vista, perchance, of a cottage and the sunshine, as the parson had said; an echo of voices from a forgotten world; the memory of a hand that was cold and of dead faces reproaching them. Such pauses are not infrequent in the conversation of the very poor. Men bend their heads to destiny less willingly than we think. The lowest remembers the rungs of the ladder he has descended.
Alban had lighted one of the cigars and he smoked it stoically, wondering again why the caves attracted him and what there was in this company which should not have made him ashamed of such associations. That he was not ashamed admitted of no question. In very truth, the humanities were conquering him in spite of inherited prejudice. Had the full account of it been written down by a philosopher, such a sage would have said that the girl Sarah stood for a type of womanly pity, of sympathy, and, in its way, of motherhood; qualities which demand no gift of birth for their appeal. The unhappy parson, too, was there not much of good in him, and might he not yet prove a human field worthy to be tilled by a husbandman of souls? His humor was kindly; his disposition gentle; his faults punished none but himself. And for what did "the Panorama" stand if not for the whole gospel of human hope without which no life may be lived at all? Alban had some glimmering of this, but he could not have set down his reasons in so many words. As for the little lad "Betty"—was not the affection they lavished upon him that which manhood ever owes to the weak and helpless. Search London over and you will not find elemental goodness in a shape more worthy than it was to be found in the caves—nor can we forego a moment's reflection upon the cant which ever preaches the vice of the poor and so rarely stops to preach their virtues.
This was the human argument of Alban's association, but the romantic must not be forgotten. More imaginative than most youths of his age, his boyish delight in these grim surroundings was less to him than a real and inspiring sense of the power of contrast they typified. Was he not this very night sleeping beneath some famous London house, it might be below that very temple of the great God Mammon, the Carlton Hotel? Far above him were the splendid rooms, fair sleepers in robes of lace, tired men who had earned enough that very day perhaps to feed all the hungry children in Thrawl Street for a lifetime and to remain rich men afterwards. Of what were the dreams of such as those—not of sunshine and a cottage as the old parson had dreamed, surely? Not of these nor of the devoted sacrifice of motherhood or of that gentle sympathy which the unfortunate so readily give their fellows. Not this certainly—and yet who should blame them? Alban, at least, had the candor to admit that he would be much as they were if his conditions of life were the same. He never deceived himself, young as he was, with the false platitudes of boastful altruists. "I should enjoy myself if I were rich," he would say—and sigh upon it; for what assumption could be more grotesque?
No, indeed, there could be no sunshine for him to-morrow. Nothing but the shadows of toil; and, in the background, that grim figure of uncertainty which never fails to haunt the lives of the very poor.
Alban had been a disappointment to his employers, the great engineer of the Isle of Dogs, to whom Charity had apprenticed him in his fourteenth year. Faithful attempts to improve his position in the works were met, as it would seem, by indifference and ingratitude. He did his work mechanically but without enthusiasm. Had he confessed the truth, he would have said, "I was not born to labor with my hands." A sense of inherited superiority, a sure conviction, common to youth, that he would become a leader, of men, conduced to a restlessness and a want of interest which he could not master. He had the desire but not the will to please his employers.
To such a lad these excursions to the West End, these pilgrimages to the shrine of the outcast and the homeless were by way of being a mental debauch. He arose from them in the morning as a man may arise to the remembrance of unjustified excess, which leaves the mind inert and the body weary. His daily task presented itself in a revolting attitude. Why had he been destined to this slavery? Why must he set out to his work at an hour of the chilly morning when the West End was still shuttered and asleep and the very footmen still yawned in their beds? If he had any consolation, it was that the others were often before him in that cunning debauch from the caves which the dawn compelled. The Lady Sarah would be at Covent Garden by four o'clock. The Archbishop, who rarely seemed to sleep at all, went off to the Serpentine for his morning ablutions when the clock struck five. "Betty," the pale-faced infant, disappeared as soon as the sun was up—and often, when Alban awoke in the cellar, he found himself the only tenant of that grim abode. Sometimes, indeed, and this morning following upon the promise to little Lois Boriskoff was such an occasion, he overslept himself altogether and was shut out from the works for the day. This had happened before and had brought frequent reprimands. He feared them and yet had not the will to remember them.
Big Ben was striking seven when he quitted the cellar and London was awake in earnest. Alban usually spent twopence in the luxury of a "wash and brush up" before he went down to the river; but he hastened on this morning conscious of his tardiness and troubled at the possible consequences. The bright spring day did little to reassure him. Weather does not mean very much to those who labor in heated atmospheres, who have no profit of the sunshine nor gift of the seasons. Alban thought rather of the fateful clock and of the excuses which might pacify the timekeeper. He had never stooped to the common lies; he would not stoop to them this day. When, at the gate of the works, a heavy jowled man with a red beard asked him what he meant by coming there at such an hour, he answered as frankly that he did not know.
"Been out to supper with the Earl of Barkin, perhaps," the burly man suggested. "Well, young fellow, you go up and see Mr. Tucker. He's particularly desirous of making your acquaintance—that he is. Tell him how his lordship's doin' and don't you forget the ladies."
Alban made no reply, but crossing the open yard he mounted a little flight of stairs and knocked indifferently at the door of the dreaded office thus indicated. An angry voice, bidding him "come in," did not reassure him. He found the deputy manager frank but determined. There could be no doubt whatever of the issue.
"Kennedy," he said quietly, "I hope you understand why I have sent for you."
"For being late, sir. I am very sorry—I overslept myself."
"My boy, if your work was as honest as your tongue, your fortune would be made. I am afraid I must remember what passed at our last meeting. You promised me then—"
"I am quite aware of it, sir. The real truth is that I can't get up. The work here is distasteful to me—but I do my best."
The manager shook his head in a deprecating manner.
"We have given you many chances, Kennedy," he rejoined. "If it rested with me, I would give you another. But it doesn't rest with me—it rests with that necessary person. Example. What would the men say if I treated you as a privileged person? You know that the work could not go on. For the present, at any rate, you are suspended. I must see my directors and take instructions from them. Now, really, Kennedy, don't you think that you have been very foolish?"
"I suppose so, sir. That's what foolish people generally think. It must make a lot of difference to you whether a man comes at six or seven, even if he does a good deal more work than the early ones. I could do what you ask me to do in three hours a day. That's what puzzles me."
The amiable Mr. Tucker was up in arms in a moment.
"Now, come, I cannot discuss abstract propositions with you. Our hours are from six to six. You do not choose to keep them and, therefore, you must go. When you are a little more practically inclined, I will speak to the directors for you. You may come and tell me so when that is the case."
"I shall never come and tell you so, sir. I wish that I could—but it will never be the truth. The work that I could do for you is now what you want me to do. I am sure it is better for me to go, sir."
"Then you have something in your mind, Kennedy?"
"So many things, sir, that I could fill a book with them. That is why I am foolish. Good-by, Mr. Tucker. I suppose you have all been very kind to me—I don't rightly understand, but I think that you have. So good-by and thank you."
The discreet manager took the outstretched hand and shook it quite limply. There had been a momentary contraction of the brows while he asked himself if astute rivals might not have been tampering with this young fellow and trying to buy the firm's secrets. An instant's reflection, however, reassured him. Alban had no secrets worth the name to sell, and did he possess them, money would not buy them. "Half mad but entirely honest," was Mr. Tucker's comment, "he will either make a fortune or throw himself over London Bridge."
Alban had been quite truthful when he said that he had many things in his mind, but this confession did not mean to signify a possibility of new employment. In honest truth, he had hardly left the gates of the great yard when he realized how hopeless his position was. Of last week's wages but a few shillings remained in his pocket. He knew no one to whom he might offer such services as he had to give. The works had taught him the elements of mechanical engineering, and common sense told him that skilled labor rarely went begging if the laborer were worthy his hire. None the less, the prospect of touting for such employment affrighted him beyond words. He felt that he could not again abase himself for a few paltry shillings a week. The ambition to make of this misfortune a stepping-stone to better things rested on no greater security than his pride and yet it would not be wholly conquered. He spent a long morning by the riverside planning schemes so futile that even the boy's mind rejected them. The old copybook maxims recurred to him and were treated with derision. He knew that he would never become Lord Mayor of London—after a prosperous career in a dingy office which he had formerly swept out with a housemaid's broom.
The lower reaches of the Thames are a world of themselves; peopled by a nation of aliens; endless in the variety of their life; abounding in weird and beautiful pictures which even the landsman can appreciate. Alban rarely tired of that panorama of swirling waters and drifting hulks and the majestic shapes of resting ships. And upon such a day as this which had made an idler of him, their interest increased tenfold; and to this there was added a wonder which had never come into his life before. For surely, he argued, this great river was the high road to an El Dorado of which he had often dreamed; to that shadowy land of valley and of mountain which his imagination so ardently desired. Let a man find employment upon the deck of one of those splendid ships and henceforth the whole world would be open to him. Alban debated this as a possible career, and as he thought of it the spell of the craving for new sights and scenes afar mastered him to the exclusion of all other thoughts. Who was to forbid him; who had the right to stand between him and his world hunger so irresistibly? When a voice within whispered a girl's name in his ear, he could have laughed aloud for very derision. A fine thing that he should talk of the love of woman or let his plans be influenced for the sake of a pretty face! Why, he would be a beggar himself in a week, it might be without a single copper in his pocket or a roof to shelter him! And he was just the sort of man to live on a woman's earnings—just the one to cast the glove to fortune and of his desperation achieve the final madness. No, no, he must leave London. The city had done with him—he had never been so sure of anything in all his life.
It was an heroic resolution, and shame that hunger should so maltreat it. When twelve o'clock struck and Alban remembered how poor a breakfast he had made, he did not think it necessary to abandon any of his old habits, at least not immediately; and he went, as he usually had done, to the shabby dining-room in Union Street where he and Lois had taken their dinners together for many a month past. Boriskoff's daughter was already at table and waiting for him when he entered; he thought that she was unusually pale and that her expectancy was not that of a common occasion. Was it possible that she also had news to tell him—news as momentous as his own? Alban feared to ask her, and hanging his cap on a peg above their table without a word, he sat down and began to study the greasy menu.
"What's the luck, Alb, dear—why do you look like that?"
Little Lois asked the question, struck by his odd manner and appearance.
He answered her with surprising candor—for the sudden determination came to him that he must tell Lois.
"No luck at all, Lois."
"Why, you don't mean—?"
"I do, and that's straight. There is no further need of my services—"
"You've got the sack?"
"The whole of it, Lois—and now I'm selling it cheap."
The girl laughed aloud, but there were tears in her eyes while she did so. What a day for them both. She was angry almost with him for telling her.
"Why, if father ain't a-gettin' on the prophet line—he said you would, Alb. So help me rummy, I was that angry with him I couldn't hear myself speak. And now it's all come true. Why, Alb, dear—and I wanted to tell you—"
She could not finish the sentence for a sob that almost choked her. The regular customers of the room had turned to stare at the sound of such unwonted hilarity. Dinner was far too serious a business for most of them that laughter should serve it.
"What was your father saying, Lois?"
"That you were going away, dear, and that the sooner I gave up thinking about you the fatter I should be."
"How did he know what was going to happen?"
"Ask me another and don't pay the bill. He's been as queer as white rabbits since yesterday—didn't go to work this morning, but sat all day over a letter he's received. I shall be frightened of father just now. I do really believe he's getting a bit balmy on the crumpet."
"Still talking about the man who stole the furnace?"
"Why, there you've got it. We're going to Buckingham Palace in a donkey cart and pretty quick about it. You'll be ashamed of such fine people, Alb—father says so. So I'm not to speak to you to begin with—not till the dresses come home from Covent Garden and the horses are pawing the ground for her lidyship. That's the chorus all day—lots of fun when the bricks come home and father with a watch-chain as big as Moses. He knew you were going to get the sack and he warned me against it. 'We can't afford to associate with those people nowadays'—don't yer know—'so mind what you're a-doing, my child.' And I'm minding it all day—I was just minding it when you came in, Alb. Don't you see her lidyship is taking mutton chops? Couldn't descend to nothink less, my dear—not on such a day as this—blimme."
Lois' patter, acquired in the streets, invariably approached the purely vulgar when she was either angry or annoyed—for at other times her nationality saved her from many of its penalties. Alban quite understood that something beyond ordinary must have passed between father and daughter to-day; but this was neither the time nor the place to discuss it.
"We'll meet outside the Pav to-night and have a good talk, Lois," he said; "everybody's listening here. Be there at nine sharp. Who knows, it may be the last time we shall ever meet in London—"
"You're not going away, Alb?"
A look of terror had come into the pretty eyes; the frail figure of the girl trembled as she asked the question.
"Can't say, Lois—how do I know? Suppose I went as a sailor—"
Lois laughed louder than before.
"You—a blueboy! Lord, how you make me laugh. Fancy the aristocrat being ordered about. Oh, my poor funny-bone! Wouldn't you knock the man down that did it—oh, can't I see him."
The idea amused her immensely and she dwelt upon it even in the street outside. Her Alb as Captain Jack—or should it be the cabin-boy. And, of course, he would bring her a parrot from the Brazils and perhaps a monkey.
"An' I'll keep a light in the winder for fear you should be shipwrecked in High Street, Alb, and won't we go hornpiping together. Oh, you silly boy; oh, you dear old Captain Jack—whatever put a sailorman into your mind?"
"The water," said Alban, as stolidly—"it leads to somewhere, Lois. This is the road to nowhere—good God, how tired I am of it."
"And of those who go with you, Alb."
"I am ashamed of myself because of them, Lois."
"You silly boy, Alb—are they ashamed, Alb? Oh, no, no—people who love are never ashamed."
He did not contest the point with her, nor might she linger. Bells were ringing everywhere, syrens were calling the people to work. It was a new thing for Alban Kennedy to be strolling the streets with his hands in his pockets when the clock struck one. And yet there he was become a loafer in an instant, just one of the many thousand who stare up idly at the sky or gaze upon the windows of the shops they may not patronize, or drift on helpless as though a dark stream of life had caught them and nevermore would set them on dry land again. Alban realized all this, and yet the full measure of his disaster was not wholly understood. It was so recent, the consequences yet unfelt, the future, after all, pregnant with the possibilities of change. He knew not at all what he should do, and yet determined that the shame of which he had spoken should never overtake him.
And so determining, he strolled as far as Aldgate Station—and there he met the stranger.
There is a great deal of fine philanthropic work done east of Aldgate Station by numbers of self-sacrificing young men just down from the Universities. So, when a slim parson touched Alban upon the arm and begged for a word with him, he concluded immediately that he had attracted the notice of one of these and become the objective of his charity.
"I beg your pardon," he said a little stiffly. The idea of stooping to such assistance had long been revolting to him. He was within an ace of breaking away from the fellow altogether.
"Your name is Alban Kennedy, I think? Will you permit me to have a few words with you?"
Alban looked the parson up and down, and the survey did something to satisfy him. He found himself face to face with a man, it might be of thirty years of age, whose complexion was dark but not unpleasant, whose eyes were frank and open, the possessor, too, of fair brown hair and of a manner not altogether free from a suspicion of that which scoffers call the "wash-hand" basin cult.
"I do not know you, sir."
"Indeed you do not—we are total strangers. My name is Sidney Geary; I am the senior curate of St. Philip's Church at Hampstead. If we could go somewhere and have a few words, I would be very much obliged to you."
Alban hardly knew what to say to him. The manner was not that of a philanthropist desiring him to come to a "pleasant afternoon for the people"; he detected no air of patronage, no vulgar curiosity—indeed, the curate of St. Philip's was almost deferential.
"Well, sir—if you don't mind a coffee shop—"
"The very place. I have always thought that a coffee shop, properly conducted and entirely opposed to the alcoholic principle, is one of the most useful works in the civic economy. Let us go to a coffee shop by all means."
Alban crossed the road and, leading the stranger a little way eastward, turned into a respectable establishment upon the Lockhart plan—almost deserted at such an hour and the very place for a confidential chat.
"Will you have anything, sir?"
The curate looked at the thick cups upon the counter, turned his gaze for an instant upon a splendid pile of sausages, and shuddered a little ominously.
"I suppose the people here have excellent appetites," he reflected sagely. "I myself, unfortunately, have just lunched in Mount Street—but a little coffee—shall we not drink a little coffee?"
"Suppose I order you two doorsteps and a thick 'un?"
"My dear young fellow, what in heaven's name are 'two doorsteps and a thick 'un?'"
Alban smiled a little scornfully.
"Evidently you come from the West. I was only trying you. Shall we have two coffees—large? It isn't so bad as it looks by a long way."
The coffee was brought and set steaming before them. In an interval of silence Alban studied the curate's face as he would have studied a book in which he might read some account of his own fortunes. Why had this man stopped him in the street?
"Your first visit to Aldgate, sir?"
"Not exactly, Mr. Kennedy—many years ago I have recollections of a school treat at a watering-place near the river's mouth—an exceedingly muddy place since become famous, I understand. But I take the children to Eastbourne now."
"They find that a bit slow, don't they? Kids love mud, you know."
"They do—upon my word. A child's love of mud is one of the most incurable things in nature."
"Then why try to cure it?"
"But what are you to do?"
"Wash them, sir,—you can always do that. My father was a parson, you know—"
"Good heavens, a clergyman—and you are come to—that is, you choose to live amidst these dreadful surroundings?"
"I do not choose—death chose for me."
"My poor boy—"
"Not at all, sir. Give a man a good appetite and enough to gratify it, and I don't know that other circumstances count much."
"Trial has made of you an epicurean, I see. Well, well, so much the better. That which I have to offer you will be the more acceptable."
"Employment—for a considerable term. Good employment, Mr. Kennedy. Employment which will take you into the highest society, educate you, perhaps, open a great career to you—that is what I came to speak of."
The good man had meant to break the news more dramatically; but it flowed on now as a freshet released, while his eyes sparkled and his head wagged as though his whole soul were bursting with it. Alban thought for a moment that he had met one of those pleasant eccentrics who are not less rare in the East End than the West. "This good fellow has escaped out of an asylum," he thought.
"What kind of a job would that be, sir?"
"Your own. Name it and it shall be chosen for you. That is what I am commissioned to say."
"By whom, sir?"
"By my patron and by yours."
"Does he wish to keep his name back?"
"So little that he is waiting for you at his own house now."
"Then why shouldn't we go and see him, sir?"
He put the question fully believing that it would bring the whole ridiculous castle down with a crash, as it were, upon the table before him. Its effect, however, was entirely otherwise. The parson stood up immediately.
"My carriage is waiting," he said; "nothing could possibly suit me better."
Alban, however, remained seated.
"Mr. Geary," he exclaimed, "you have forgotten to tell me something."
"I can think of nothing."
"The conditions of this slap-up job—the high society and all the rest of it! What are the conditions?"
He spoke almost with contempt, and deliberately selected a vulgar expression. It had come to him by this time that some unknown friend had become interested in his career and that this amiable curate desired to make either a schoolmaster or an organist of him. "Old Boriskoff knew I was going to get the sack and little Lois has been chattering," he argued—nor did this line of reasoning at all console him. Sidney Geary, meanwhile, felt as though some one had suddenly applied a slab of melting ice to those grammatical nerves which Cambridge had tended so carefully.
"My dear Mr. Kennedy—not 'slap-up,' I beg of you. If there are any conditions attached to the employment my patron has to offer you, is not he the best person to state them? Come and hear him for yourself. I assure you it will not be waste of time."
"Does he live far from here?"
"At Hampstead Heath—it will take us an hour to drive there."
"And did he send the char a bancs especially for my benefit?"
"Not really—but naturally he did."
"Then I will go with you, sir."
He put on his cap slowly and followed the curate into the street—one of the girls racing after them to say that they had forgotten to pay the bill. "And a pretty sort of clergyman you must be, to be sure," was her reflection—to the curate's blushing annoyance and his quite substantial indignation.
"I find much impertinence in this part of the world," he remarked as they retraced their steps toward the West; "as if the girl did not know that it was an accident."
"We pay for what we eat down here," Alban rejoined dryly; "it's a good plan as you would discover if you tried it, sir."
Mr. Geary looked at the boy for an instant as though in doubt whether he had heard a sophism or a mere impertinence. This important question was not, however, to be decided; for a neat single brougham edged toward the pavement at the moment and a little crowd collected instantly to remark so signal a phenomenon.
"Your carriage, sir?" Alban asked.
"Yes," said the curate, quietly, "my carriage. And now, if you please, we will go and see Mr. Gessner. He is a Pole, Mr. Kennedy, and one of the richest men in London to-day."
THE HOUSE OF THE FIVE GABLES
It was six o'clock as the carriage passed Swiss Cottage station and ten minutes later when they had climbed the stiff hill to the Heath. Alban had not often ridden in a carriage, but he would have found his sensations very difficult to set down. The glossy cushions, the fine ivory and silver fittings, were ornaments to be touched with caressing fingers as one touches the coat of a beautiful animal or the ripe bloom upon fruit. Just to loll back in such a vehicle, to watch the houses and the people and the streets, was an experience he had not hitherto imagined. The smooth motion was a delight to him. He felt that he could continue such a journey to the ends of the earth, resting at his ease, untroubled by those never ended questions upon which poverty insisted.
"Is it far yet, sir—is Mr. Gessner's house a long way off?"
He asked the question as one who desired an affirmative reply. The parson, however, believed that his charge was already wearied; and he said eagerly:
"It is just over there between the trees, my lad. We shall be with our good friend in five minutes now. Perhaps you know that you are on Hampstead Heath?"
"I came here once with little Lois Boriskoff—on a Bank Holiday. It was not like this then. If Mr. Gessner is rich, why does he live in a place where people come to keep Bank Holiday? I should have thought he would have got away from them."