The Truants

Chapter X

Mr. Chase

A.E.W. Mason

THE NIGHT had come when Warrisden stepped from the platform of the station into the train. Pamela was by this time back at Whitewebs—he himself was travelling to London; their day was over. He looked out of the window. Somewhere three miles away the village of the three poplars crowned the hill, but a thick wall of darkness and fog hid it from his eyes. It seemed almost as if Pamela and he had met that day only in thought at some village which existed only in a dream. The train, however, rattled upon its way. Gradually he became conscious of a familiar exhilaration. The day had been real. Not merely had it signalled the change in Pamela, for which for so long he had wished; not merely had it borne a blossom of promise for himself, but something was to be done immediately, and the thing to be done was of all things that which most chimed with his own desires. He was to take the road again, and the craving for the road was seldom stilled for long within his heart. He heard its call sung like a song to the rhythm of the wheels. The very uncertainty of its direction tantalised his thoughts.

Warrisden lodged upon the Embankment, and his rooms overlooked the Thames. The mist lay heavy upon London, mid all that night the steamboats hooted as they passed from bridge to bridge. Warrisden lay long awake listening to them; each blast had its message for him, each was like the greeting of a friend; each one summoned him, and to each he answered with a rising joy, “I shall follow, I shall follow.” The boats passed down to the sea through the night mist. Many a time he had heard them before, picturing the dark deck and the side lights, red and green, and the yellow light upon the mast, and the man silent at the wheel with the light from the binnacle striking up upon the lines of his face. They were little river or coasting boats for the most part, but he had never failed to be stirred by the long-drawn melancholy of their whistles. They talked of distant lands and an alien foliage.

He spent the following morning and the afternoon in the arrangement of his affairs, and in the evening drove down to the mission house. It stood in a dull by-street close to Stepney Green, a rambling building with five rooms upon the ground floor panelled with varnished deal and furnished with forms and rough tables, and on the floor above, a big billiard-room, a bagatelle-room, and a carpenter’s workshop. Mr. Chase was superintending a boxing class in one of the lower rooms, and Warrisden, when he was led up to him, received a shock of surprise. He had never seen a man to the outward eye so unfitted for his work. He had expected a strong burly person, cheery of manner and confident of voice; he saw, however, a tall young man with a long pale face and a fragile body. Mr. Chase was clothed in a clerical frock-coat of unusual length, he wore linen of an irreproachable whiteness, and his hands were fine and delicate as a woman’s. He seemed indeed the typical High Church curate fresh that very instant from the tea-cups of a drawing-room.

“A gentleman to see you, sir,” said the ex-army sergeant who had brought forward Warrisden. He handed Warrisden’s card to Chase, who turned about and showed Warrisden his full face. Surprise had been Warrisden’s first sentiment, but it gave place in an instant to distaste. The face which he saw was not ugly, but he disliked it. It almost repelled him. There was no light in the eyes at all; they were veiled and sunken; and the features repelled by reason of a queer antagonism. Mr. Chase had the high narrow forehead of an ascetic, the loose mouth of a sensualist, and a thin crop of pale and almost colourless hair. Warrisden wondered why any one should come to this man for advice, most of all a Tony Stretton. What could they have in common—the simple, good-humoured, unintellectual subaltern of the Coldstream, and this clerical exquisite? The problem was perplexing.

“You wish to see me?” asked Chase.

“If you please.”

“Now? As you see, I am busy.”

“I can wait.”

“Thank you. The mission closes at eleven. If you can wait till then you might come home with me, and we could talk in comfort.”

It was nine o’clock. For two hours Warrisden followed Chase about the mission, and with each half-hour his interest increased. However irreconcilable with his surroundings Chase might appear to be, neither he nor any of the members of the mission were aware of it. He was at ease alike with the boys and the men; and the boys and the men were at ease with him. Moreover, he was absolute master, although there were rough men enough among his subjects. The fiercest boxing contest was stopped in a second by a motion of that delicate hand.

“I used to have a little trouble,” he said to Warrisden, “before I had those wire frames fixed over the gas-jets. You see they cover the gas taps. Before that was done, if there was any trouble, the first thing which happened was that the room was in darkness. It took some time to restore order;” and he passed on to the swimming-bath.

Mr. Chase was certainly indefatigable. Now he was giving a lesson in wood-carving to a boy; now he was arranging an apprenticeship for another in the carpenter’s shop. Finally he led the way into the great billiard-room, where only the older men were allowed.

“It is here that Stretton used to keep order?” said Warrisden; and Chase at once turned quickly towards him.

“Oh,” he said slowly, in a voice of comprehension, “I was wondering what brought you here. Yes; this was the room.”

Chase moved carelessly away, and spoke to some of the men about the tables. But for the rest of the evening he was on his guard. More than once his eyes turned curiously and furtively towards Warrisden. His face was stubborn, and wore a look of wariness. Warrisden began to fear lest he should get no answer to the question he had to put. No appeal would be of any use—of that he felt sure. His argument must serve—and would it serve?

Chase, at all events, made no attempt to avoid the interview. As the hands of the clock marked eleven, and the rooms emptied, he came at once to Warrisden.

“We can go now,” he said; and unlocking a drawer, to Warrisden’s perplexity he filled his pockets with racket-balls. The motive for that proceeding became apparent as they walked to the house where Chase lodged. Their way lay through alleys, and as they walked the children clustered about them, and Chase’s pockets were emptied.

“We keep this house because men from the Universities come down and put in a week now and then at the mission. My rooms are upstairs.”

Chase’s sitting-room was in the strangest contrast to the bareness of the mission and the squalor of the streets. It was furnished with luxury, but the luxury was that of a man of taste and knowledge. There was hardly a piece of furniture which had not an interesting history; the engravings and the brass ornaments upon the walls had been picked up here and there in Italy. A bright fire blazed upon the hearth.

“What will you drink?” Chase asked, and brought from a cupboard bottle after bottle of liqueurs. It seemed to Warrisden that the procession of bottles would never end—some held liqueurs of which he had never even heard the name; but concerning all of them Mr. Chase discoursed with great knowledge and infinite appreciation.

“I can recommend this,” he said tentatively, as he took up one fat round bottle and held it up to the light. “It is difficult perhaps to say definitely which is the best, but—yes, I can recommend this.”

“Can’t I have a whiskey and soda?” asked Warrisden, plaintively.

Mr. Chase looked at his companion with a stare.

“Of course you can,” he replied. But his voice was one of disappointment, and with an almost imperceptible shrug of the shoulders he fetched a Tantalus and a siphon of seltzer.

“Help yourself,” he said; and lighting a gold-tipped cigarette he drew up a chair and began to talk. And so Warrisden came at last to understand how Tony Stretton had gained his great faith in Mr. Chase. Chase was a talker of a rare quality. He sat stooping over the fire with his thin hands outspread to the blaze, and for half an hour Warrisden was enchained. All that had repelled him in the man, all that had aroused his curiosity, was soon lost to sight. He yielded himself up as if to some magician. Chase talked not at all of his work or of the many strange incidents which he must needs have witnessed in its discharge. He spoke of other climates and bright towns with a scholarship which had nothing of pedantry, and an observation human as it was keen. Chase, with the help of his Livy, had traced Hannibal’s road across the Alps and had followed it on foot; he spoke of another march across snow mountains of which Warrisden had never till this moment heard—the hundred days of a dead Sultan of Morocco on the Passes of the Atlas, during which he led his forces back from Tafilet to Rabat. Chase knew nothing of this retreat but what he had read. Yet he made it real to Warrisden, so vividly did his imagination fill up the outlines of the written history. He knew his Paris, his Constantinople. He had bathed from the Lido and dreamed on the Grand Canal. He spoke of the peeling frescoes in the Villa of Countess Guiccioli above Leghorn, of the outlook from the terrace over the vines and the olive trees to the sea where Shelley was drowned; and where Byron’s brig used to round into the wind and with its sails flapping drop anchor under the hill. For half an hour Warrisden wandered through Europe in the pleasantest companionship, and then Chase stopped abruptly and leaned back in his chair.

“I was forgetting,” he said, “that you had come upon a particular errand. It sometimes happens that I see no one outside the mission people for a good while, and during those periods when I get an occasion I am apt to talk too much. What can I do for you?”

The spirit had gone from his voice, his face. He leaned back in his chair, a man tired out. Warrisden looked at the liqueur bottles crowded on the table, with Chase’s conversation still fresh in his mind. Was Chase a man at war with himself, he wondered, who was living a life for which he had no taste that he might the more completely escape a life which his conscience disapproved? Or was he deliberately both hedonist and Puritan, giving to each side of his strange nature, in turn, its outlet and gratification?

“You have something to say to me,” Chase continued. “I know quite well what it is about.”

“Stretton,” said Warrisden.

“Yes; you mentioned him in the billiard-room. Well?”

Chase was not looking at Warrisden. He sat with his eyes half-closed, his elbows on the arms of his chair, his finger-tips joined under his chain, and his head thrown back. There was no expression upon his face but one of weariness. Would he answer? Could he answer? Warrisden was in doubt, indeed in fear. He led to his question warily.

“It was you who recommended Stretton to try horse-breeding in Kentucky.”

“Yes,” said Chase; and he added, “after he had decided of his own accord to go away.”

“He failed.”


“And he has disappeared.”

Chase opened his eyes, but did not turn them to his companion.

“I did not advise his disappearance,” he said. “That, like his departure, was his own doing.”

“No doubt,” Warrisden agreed. “But it is thought that you might have heard from him since his disappearance.”

Chase nodded his head.

“I have.”

“It is thought that you might know where he is now.”

“I do,” said Mr. Chase. Warrisden was sensibly relieved. One-half of his fear was taken from him. Chase knew, at all events, where Stretton was to be found. Now he must disclose his knowledge. But before he could put a question, Chase said languidly—

“You say ‘it is thought,’ Mr. Warrisden. By whom is it thought? By his wife?”

“No. But by a great friend of hers and his.”

“Oh,” said Chase, “by Miss Pamela Mardale, then.”

Warrisden started forward.

“You know her?” he asked.

“No. But Stretton mentioned her to me in a letter. She has sent you to me in fulfilment of a promise. I understand.”

The words were not very intelligible to Warrisden. He knew nothing of Pamela’s promise to Tony Stretton. But, on the other hand, he saw that Mr. Chase was giving a more attentive ear to what he said. He betrayed no ignorance of the promise.

“I am sent to fetch Stretton home,” he said. “I want you to tell me where he is.”

Chase shook his head.

“No,” he said gently.

“It is absolutely necessary that Stretton should come back,” Warrisden declared with great deliberation. And with no less deliberation Chase replied—

“In Stretton’s view it is absolutely necessary that he should stay away!”

“His father is dying.”

Chase started forward in his chair, and stared at Warrisden for a long time.

“Is that an excuse?” he said at length.

It was, as Warrisden was aware. He did not answer the question.

“It is the truth,” he replied; and he replied truthfully.

Chase rose from his chair and walked once or twice across the room. He came back to the fire, and leaning an elbow on the mantelpiece stared into the coals. Warrisden sat very still. He had used his one argument—he could add nothing to it; he could only wait for the answer in a great anxiety. So much hung upon that answer for Stretton and his wife, for Pamela, for himself! The fortunes of all four were knotted together. At last the answer came.

“I promised Tony that I would keep his secret,” said Chase. “But when he asked for the promise, and when I gave it, the possibility of his father dying was not either in his mind or mine. We considered—in letters, of course—other possibilities; but not this one. I don’t think I have the right to remain silent. Even in the face of this possibility I should have kept my promise, I think, if you had come from his wife—for I know why he disappeared. But as things are, I will tell you. Tony Stretton is in the North Sea on a trawler.”

“In the North Sea?” exclaimed Warrisden. And he smiled. After all, the steamboats on the river had last night called to him with a particular summons.

“Yes,” continued Chase, and he fetched from his writing-desk a letter in Tony’s hand. “He came back to England two months ago. He drifted across the country. He found himself at Yarmouth with a few shillings in his pocket. He knew something of the sea. He had sailed his own yacht in happier times. He was in great trouble. He needed time to think out a new course of life. He hung about on Gorleston pier for a day or two, and then was taken on by a skipper who was starting out short of hands, he signed for eight weeks, and he wrote to me the day before he started. That’s four weeks ago.”

“Can I reach him?” Warrisden asked.

“Yes. The boat is the Perseverance, and it belongs to the Blue Fleet. A steam cutter goes out every day from Billingsgate to fetch the fish. I know one of the owners. His son comes down to the mission. I can get you a passage. When can you start?”

“At any time,” replied Warrisden. “The sooner the better.”

“To-morrow, then,” said Chase. “Meet me at the entrance to Billingsgate Market at half-past eleven. It will take you forty-eight hours with ordinary luck to reach the Dogger Bank. Of course, if there’s a fog in the Thames the time will be longer. And I warn you, living is rough on a fish-carrier.”

“I don’t mind that,” said Warrisden, with a smile. He went away with a light heart, and that night wrote a letter to Pamela, telling her of his interview with Mr. Chase. The new road seemed after all likely to prove a smooth one. As he wrote, every now and then a steamboat hooted from the river, and the rain pattered upon his window. He flung it up and looked out. There was no fog to-night, only the rain fell, and fell gently. He prayed that there might be no fog upon the Thames to-morrow.

Mr. Chase, too, heard the rain that night. He sat in his armchair listening to it with a decanter at his elbow half filled with a liquid like brown sherry. At times he poured a little into his glass and drank it slowly, crouching over his fire. Somewhere in the darkness of the North Sea Tony Stretton was hidden. Very likely at this moment he was standing upon the deck of his trawler with his hands upon the spokes of the wheel, and his eyes peering forward through the rain, keeping his long night-watch while the light from the binnacle struck upwards upon the lines of his face. Mr. Chase sat late in a muse. But before he went to bed he locked the decanter and the glass away in a private cupboard, and took the key with him into his bedroom.

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