THE SECRET OF VIGOUR,
That was all. It was simple and yet in some way arresting. I found myself repeating the word after I had passed; it roused one’s attention like the sound of distant guns. “Tono”—what’s that? and deep, rich, unhurrying;—“Bun—gay!”
Then came my uncle’s amazing telegram, his answer to my hostile note: “Come to me at once you are wanted three hundred a year certain tono-bungay.”
“By Jove!” I cried, “of course!
“It’s something—. A patent-medicine! I wonder what he wants with me.”
In his Napoleonic way my uncle had omitted to give an address. His telegram had been handed in at Farringdon Road, and after complex meditations I replied to Ponderevo, Farringdon Road, trusting to the rarity of our surname to reach him.
“Where are you?” I asked.
His reply came promptly:
“192A, Raggett Street, E.C.”
The next day I took an unsanctioned holiday after the morning’s lecture. I discovered my uncle in a wonderfully new silk hat—oh, a splendid hat! with a rolling brim that went beyond the common fashion. It was decidedly too big for him—that was its only fault. It was stuck on the back of his head, and he was in a white waistcoat and shirt sleeves. He welcomed me with a forgetfulness of my bitter satire and my hostile abstinence that was almost divine. His glasses fell off at the sight of me. His round inexpressive eyes shone brightly. He held out his plump short hand.
“Here we are, George! What did I tell you? Needn’t whisper it now, my boy. Shout it—loud! spread it about! Tell every one! Tono—TONO—, TONO-BUNGAY!”
Raggett Street, you must understand, was a thoroughfare over which some one had distributed large quantities of cabbage stumps and leaves. It opened out of the upper end of Farringdon Street, and 192A was a shop with the plate-glass front coloured chocolate, on which several of the same bills I had read upon the hoardings had been stuck. The floor was covered by street mud that had been brought in on dirty boots, and three energetic young men of the hooligan type, in neck-wraps and caps, were packing wooden cases with papered-up bottles, amidst much straw and confusion. The counter was littered with these same swathed bottles, of a pattern then novel but now amazingly familiar in the world, the blue paper with the coruscating figure of a genially nude giant, and the printed directions of how under practically all circumstances to take Tono-Bungay. Beyond the counter on one side opened a staircase down which I seem to remember a girl descending with a further consignment of bottles, and the rest of the background was a high partition, also chocolate, with “Temporary Laboratory” inscribed upon it in white letters, and over a door that pierced it, “Office.” Here I rapped, inaudible amid much hammering, and then entered unanswered to find my uncle, dressed as I have described, one hand gripping a sheath of letters, and the other scratching his head as he dictated to one of three toiling typewriter girls. Behind him was a further partition and a door inscribed “ABSOLUTELY PRIVATE—NO ADMISSION,” thereon. This partition was of wood painted the universal chocolate, up to about eight feet from the ground, and then of glass. Through the glass I saw dimly a crowded suggestion of crucibles and glass retorts, and—by Jove!—yes!—the dear old Wimblehurst air-pump still! It gave me quite a little thrill—that air-pump! And beside it was the electrical machine—but something—some serious trouble—had happened to that. All these were evidently placed on a shelf just at the level to show.
“Come right into the sanctum,” said my uncle, after he had finished something about “esteemed consideration,” and whisked me through the door into a room that quite amazingly failed to verify the promise of that apparatus. It was papered with dingy wall-paper that had peeled in places; it contained a fireplace, an easy-chair with a cushion, a table on which stood two or three big bottles, a number of cigar-boxes on the mantel, whisky Tantalus and a row of soda syphons. He shut the door after me carefully.
“Well, here we are!” he said. “Going strong! Have a whisky, George? No!—Wise man! Neither will I! You see me at it! At it—hard!”
“Hard at what?”
“Read it,” and he thrust into my hand a label—that label that has now become one of the most familiar objects of the chemist’s shop, the greenish-blue rather old-fashioned bordering, the legend, the name in good black type, very clear, and the strong man all set about with lightning flashes above the double column of skilful lies in red—the label of Tono-Bungay. “It’s afloat,” he said, as I stood puzzling at this. “It’s afloat. I’m afloat!” And suddenly he burst out singing in that throaty tenor of his—
“I’m afloat, I’m afloat on the fierce flowing tide,|
The ocean’s my home and my bark is my bride!
“Ripping song that is, George. Not so much a bark as a solution, but still—it does! Here we are at it! By-the-by! Half a mo’! I’ve thought of a thing.” He whisked out, leaving me to examine this nuclear spot at leisure while his voice became dictatorial without. The den struck me as in its large grey dirty way quite unprecedented and extraordinary. The bottles were all labelled simply A, B, C, and so forth, and that dear old apparatus above, seen from this side, was even more patiently “on the shelf” than when it had been used to impress Wimblehurst. I saw nothing for it but to sit down in the chair and await my uncle’s explanations. I remarked a frock-coat with satin lapels behind the door; there was a dignified umbrella in the corner and a clothes-brush and a hat-brush stood on a side-table. My uncle returned in five minutes looking at his watch—a gold watch—“Gettin’ lunch-time, George,” he said. “You’d better come and have lunch with me!”
“How’s Aunt Susan?” I asked.
“Exuberant. Never saw her so larky. This has bucked her up something wonderful—all this.”
“What is Tono-Bungay?” I asked.
My uncle hesitated. “Tell you after lunch, George,” he said. “Come along!” and having locked up the sanctum after himself, led the way along a narrow dirty pavement, lined with barrows and swept at times by avalanche-like porters bearing burthens to vans, to Farringdon Street. He hailed a passing cab superbly, and the cabman was infinitely respectful. “Schafer’s,” he said, and off we went side by side—and with me more and more amazed at all these things—to Schafer’s Hotel, the second of the two big places with huge lace curtain-covered windows, near the corner of Blackfriars Bridge.
I will confess I felt a magic charm in our relative proportions as the two colossal, pale-blue-and-red liveried porters of Schafers’ held open the inner doors for us with a respectful salutation that in some manner they seemed to confine wholly to my uncle. Instead of being about four inches taller, I felt at least the same size as he, and very much slenderer. Still more respectful—waiters relieved him of the new hat and the dignified umbrella, and took his orders for our lunch. He gave them with a fine assurance.
He nodded to several of the waiters.
“They know me, George, already,” he said. “Point me out. Live place! Eye for coming men!”
The detailed business of the lunch engaged our attention for a while, and then I leant across my plate. “And now?” said I.
“It’s the secret of vigour. Didn’t you read that label?”
“It’s selling like hot cakes.”
“And what is it?” I pressed.
“Well,” said my uncle, and then leant forward and spoke softly under cover of his hand, “It’s nothing more or less than . . . ”
(But here an unfortunate scruple intervenes. After all, Tono-Bungay is still a marketable commodity and in the hands of purchasers, who bought it from—among other vendors—me. No! I am afraid I cannot give it away—)
“You see,” said my uncle in a slow confidential whisper, with eyes very wide and a creased forehead, “it’s nice because of the” (here he mentioned a flavouring matter and an aromatic spirit), “it’s stimulating because of” (here he mentioned two very vivid tonics, one with a marked action on the kidney.) “And the” (here he mentioned two other ingredients) “makes it pretty intoxicating. Cocks their tails. Then there’s” (but I touch on the essential secret.) “And there you are. I got it out of an old book of recipes—all except the” (here he mentioned the more virulent substance, the one that assails the kidneys), “which is my idea! Modern touch! There you are!”
He reverted to the direction of our lunch.
Presently he was leading the way to the lounge—sumptuous piece in red morocco and yellow glazed crockery, with incredible vistas of settees and sofas and things, and there I found myself grouped with him in two excessively upholstered chairs with an earthenware Moorish table between us bearing coffee and Benedictine, and I was tasting the delights of a tenpenny cigar. My uncle smoked a similar cigar in an habituated manner, and he looked energetic and knowing and luxurious and most unexpectedly a little bounder, round the end of it. It was just a trivial flaw upon our swagger, perhaps that we both were clear our cigars had to be “mild.” He got obliquely across the spaces of his great armchair so as to incline confidentially to my ear, he curled up his little legs, and I, in my longer way, adopted a corresponding receptive obliquity. I felt that we should strike an unbiased observer as a couple of very deep and wily and developing and repulsive persons.
“I want to let you into this”—puff—“George,” said my uncle round the end of his cigar. “For many reasons.”
His voice grew lower and more cunning. He made explanations that to my inexperience did not completely explain. I retain an impression of a long credit and a share with a firm of wholesale chemists, of a credit and a prospective share with some pirate printers, of a third share for a leading magazine and newspaper proprietor.
“I played ’em off one against the other,” said my uncle. I took his point in an instant. He had gone to each of them in turn and said the others had come in.
“I put up four hundred pounds,” said my uncle, “myself and my all. And you know—”
He assumed a brisk confidence. “I hadn’t five hundred pence. At least—”
For a moment he really was just a little embarrassed. “I did” he said, “produce capital. You see, there was that trust affair of yours—I ought, I suppose—in strict legality—to have put that straight first. Zzzz. . . .
“It was a bold thing to do,” said my uncle, shifting the venue from the region of honour to the region of courage. And then with a characteristic outburst of piety, “Thank God it’s all come right!
“And now, I suppose, you ask where do you come in? Well, fact is I’ve always believed in you, George. You’ve got—it’s a sort of dismal grit. Bark your shins, rouse you, and you’ll go! You’d rush any position you had a mind to rush. I know a bit about character, George—trust me. You’ve got—” He clenched his hands and thrust them out suddenly, and at the same time said, with explosive violence, “Wooosh! Yes. You have! The way you put away that Latin at Wimblehurst; I’ve never forgotten it.
“Wo-oo-oo-osh! Your science and all that! Wo-oo-oo-osh! I know my limitations. There’s things I can do, and” (he spoke in a whisper, as though this was the first hint of his life’s secret) “there’s things I can’t. Well, I can create this business, but I can’t make it go. I’m too voluminous—I’m a boiler-over, not a simmering stick-at-it. You keep on hotting up and hotting up. Papin’s digester. That’s you, steady and long and piling up,—then, wo-oo-oo-oo-osh. Come in and stiffen these niggers. Teach them that wo-oo-oo-oo-osh. There you are! That’s what I’m after. You! Nobody else believes you’re more than a boy. Come right in with me and be a man. Eh, George? Think of the fun of it—a thing on the go—a Real Live Thing! Wooshing it up! Making it buzz and spin! Whoo-oo-oo.” —He made alluring expanding circles in the air with his hand. “Eh?”
His proposal, sinking to confidential undertones again, took more definite shape. I was to give all my time and energy to developing and organising. “You shan’t write a single advertisement, or give a single assurance” he declared. “I can do all that.” And the telegram was no flourish; I was to have three hundred a year. Three hundred a year. (“That’s nothing,” said my uncle, “the thing to freeze on to, when the time comes, is your tenth of the vendor’s share.”)
Three hundred a year certain, anyhow! It was an enormous income to me. For a moment I was altogether staggered. Could there be that much money in the whole concern? I looked about me at the sumptuous furniture of Schafer’s Hotel. No doubt there were many such incomes.
My head was spinning with unwonted Benedictine and Burgundy.
“Let me go back and look at the game again,” I said. “Let me see upstairs and round about.”
“What do you think of it all?” my uncle asked at last.
“Well, for one thing,” I said, “why don’t you have those girls working in a decently ventilated room? Apart from any other consideration, they’d work twice as briskly. And they ought to cover the corks before labelling round the bottle”
“Why?” said my uncle.
“Because—they sometimes make a mucker of the cork job, and then the label’s wasted.”
“Come and change it, George,” said my uncle, with sudden fervour “Come here and make a machine of it. You can. Make it all slick, and then make it woosh. I know you can. Oh! I know you can.”
I seem to remember very quick changes of mind after that lunch. The muzzy exaltation of the unaccustomed stimulants gave way very rapidly to a model of pellucid and impartial clairvoyance which is one of my habitual mental states. It is intermittent; it leaves me for weeks together, I know, but back it comes at last like justice on circuit, and calls up all my impression, all my illusions, all my willful and passionate proceedings. We came downstairs again into that inner room which pretended to be a scientific laboratory through its high glass lights, and indeed was a lurking place. My uncle pressed a cigarette on me, and I took it and stood before the empty fireplace while he propped his umbrella in the corner, deposited the new silk hat that was a little too big for him on the table, blew copiously and produced a second cigar.
It came into my head that he had shrunken very much in size since the Wimblehurst days, that the cannon ball he had swallowed was rather more evident and shameless than it had been, his skin less fresh and the nose between his glasses, which still didn’t quite fit, much redder. And just then he seemed much laxer in his muscles and not quite as alertly quick in his movements. But he evidently wasn’t aware of the degenerative nature of his changes as he sat there, looking suddenly quite little under my eyes.
“Well, George!” he said, quite happily unconscious of my silent criticism, “what do you think of it all?”
“Well,” I said, “in the first place—it’s a damned swindle!”
“Tut! tut!” said my uncle. “It’s as straight as—It’s fair trading!”
“So much the worse for trading,” I said.
“It’s the sort of thing everybody does. After all, there’s no harm in the stuff—and it may do good. It might do a lot of good—giving people confidence, f’rinstance, against an epidemic.
“See? Why not? don’t see where your swindle comes in.”
“H’m,” I said. “It’s a thing you either see or don’t see.”
“I’d like to know what sort of trading isn’t a swindle in its way. Everybody who does a large advertised trade is selling something common on the strength of saying it’s uncommon. Look at Chickson—they made him a baronet. Look at Lord Radmore, who did it on lying about the alkali in soap! Rippin’ ads those were of his too!”
“You don’t mean to say you think doing this stuff up in bottles and swearing it’s the quintessence of strength and making poor devils buy it at that, is straight?”
“Why not, George? How do we know it mayn’t be the quintessence to them so far as they’re concerned?”
“Oh!” I said, and shrugged my shoulders.
“There’s Faith. You put Faith in ’em. . . . I grant our labels are a bit emphatic. Christian Science, really. No good setting people against the medicine. Tell me a solitary trade nowadays that hasn’t to be—emphatic. It’s the modern way! Everybody understands it—everybody allows for it.”
“But the world would be no worse and rather better, if all this stuff of yours was run down a conduit into the Thames.”
“Don’t see that, George, at all. ’Mong other things, all our people would be out of work. Unemployed! I grant you Tono-Bungay may be—not quite so good a find for the world as Peruvian bark, but the point is, George—it makes trade! And the world lives on trade. Commerce! A romantic exchange of commodities and property. Romance. ’Magination. See? You must look at these things in a broad light. Look at the wood—and forget the trees! And hang it, George! we got to do these things! There’s no way unless you do. What do you mean to do—anyhow?”
“There’s ways of living,” I said, “Without either fraud or lying.”
“You’re a bit stiff, George. There’s no fraud in this affair, I’ll bet my hat. But what do you propose to do? Go as chemist to some one who is running a business, and draw a salary without a share like I offer you. Much sense in that! It comes out of the swindle as you call it—just the same.”
“Some businesses are straight and quiet, anyhow; supply a sound article that is really needed, don’t shout advertisements.”
“No, George. There you’re behind the times. The last of that sort was sold up ’bout five years ago.”
“Well, there’s scientific research.”
“And who pays for that? Who put up that big City and Guilds place at South Kensington? Enterprising business men! They fancy they’ll have a bit of science going on, they want a handy Expert ever and again, and there you are! And what do you get for research when you’ve done it? Just a bare living and no outlook. They just keep you to make discoveries, and if they fancy they’ll use ’em they do.”
“One can teach.”
“How much a year, George? How much a year? I suppose you must respect Carlyle! Well, you take Carlyle’s test—solvency. (Lord! what a book that French Revolution of his is!) See what the world pays teachers and discoverers and what it pays business men! That shows the ones it really wants. There’s a justice in these big things, George, over and above the apparent injustice. I tell you it wants trade. It’s Trade that makes the world go round! Argosies! Venice! Empire!”
My uncle suddenly rose to his feet.
“You think it over, George. You think it over! And come up on Sunday to the new place—we got rooms in Gower Street now—and see your aunt. She’s often asked for you, George often and often, and thrown it up at me about that bit of property—though I’ve always said and always will, that twenty-five shillings in the pound is what I’ll pay you and interest up to the nail. And think it over. It isn’t me I ask you to help. It’s yourself. It’s your aunt Susan. It’s the whole concern. It’s the commerce of your country. And we want you badly. I tell you straight, I know my limitations. You could take this place, you could make it go! I can see you at it—looking rather sour. Woosh is the word, George.”
And he smiled endearingly.
“I got to dictate a letter,” he said, ending the smile, and vanished into the outer room.
I didn’t succumb without a struggle to my uncle’s allurements. Indeed, I held out for a week while I contemplated life and my prospects. It was a crowded and muddled contemplation. It invaded even my sleep.
My interview with the Registrar, my talk with my uncle, my abrupt discovery of the hopeless futility of my passion for Marion, had combined to bring me to sense of crisis. What was I going to do with life?
I remember certain phases of my indecisions very well.
I remember going home from our talk. I went down Farringdon Street to the Embankment because I thought to go home by Holborn and Oxford Street would be too crowded for thinking. . . . That piece of Embankment from Blackfriars to Westminster still reminds me of that momentous hesitation.
You know, from first to last, I saw the business with my eyes open, I saw its ethical and moral values quite clearly. Never for a moment do I remember myself faltering from my persuasion that the sale of Tono-Bungay was a thoroughly dishonest proceeding. The stuff was, I perceived, a mischievous trash, slightly stimulating, aromatic and attractive, likely to become a bad habit and train people in the habitual use of stronger tonics and insidiously dangerous to people with defective kidneys. It would cost about sevenpence the large bottle to make, including bottling, and we were to sell it at half a crown plus the cost of the patent medicine stamp. A thing that I will confess deterred me from the outset far more than the sense of dishonesty in this affair, was the supreme silliness of the whole concern. I still clung to the idea that the world of men was or should be a sane and just organisation, and the idea that I should set myself gravely, just at the fine springtime of my life, to developing a monstrous bottling and packing warehouse, bottling rubbish for the consumption of foolish, credulous and depressed people, had in it a touch of insanity. My early beliefs still clung to me. I felt assured that somewhere there must be a hitch in the fine prospect of ease and wealth under such conditions; that somewhere, a little overgrown, perhaps, but still traceable, lay a neglected, wasted path of use and honour for me.
My inclination to refuse the whole thing increased rather than diminished at first as I went along the Embankment. In my uncle’s presence there had been a sort of glamour that had prevented an outright refusal. It was a revival of affection for him I felt in his presence, I think, in part, and in part an instinctive feeling that I must consider him as my host. But much more was it a curious persuasion he had the knack of inspiring—a persuasion not so much of his integrity and capacity as of the reciprocal and yielding foolishness of the world. One felt that he was silly and wild, but in some way silly and wild after the fashion of the universe. After all, one must live somehow. I astonished him and myself by temporising.
“No,” said I, “I’ll think it over!”
And as I went along the embankment the first effect was all against my uncle. He shrank—for a little while he continued to shrink—in perspective until he was only a very small shabby little man in a dirty back street, sending off a few hundred bottles of rubbish to foolish buyers. The great buildings on the right of us, the Inns and the School Board place—as it was then—Somerset House, the big hotels, the great bridges, Westminster’s outlines ahead, had an effect of grey largeness that reduced him to the proportions of a busy black beetle in a crack in the floor.
And then my eye caught the advertisements on the south side of “Sorber’s Food,” of “Cracknell’s Ferric Wine,” very bright and prosperous signs, illuminated at night, and I realised how astonishingly they looked at home there, how evidently part they were in the whole thing.
I saw a man come charging out of Palace Yard—the policeman touched his helmet to him—with a hat and a bearing astonishingly like my uncle’s. After all,—didn’t Cracknell himself sit in the House?
Tono-Bungay shouted at me from a hoarding near Adelphi Terrace; I saw it afar off near Carfax Street; it cried out again upon me in Kensington High Street, and burst into a perfect clamour; six or seven times I saw it as I drew near my diggings. It certainly had an air of being something more than a dream.
Yes, I thought it over—thoroughly enough. . . . Trade rules the world. Wealth rather than trade! The thing was true, and true too was my uncle’s proposition that the quickest way to get wealth is to sell the cheapest thing possible in the dearest bottle. He was frightfully right after all. Pecunnia non olet,—a Roman emperor said that. Perhaps my great heroes in Plutarch were no more than such men, fine now only because they are distant; perhaps after all this Socialism to which I had been drawn was only a foolish dream, only the more foolish because all its promises were conditionally true. Morris and these others played with it wittingly; it gave a zest, a touch of substance, to their aesthetic pleasures. Never would there be good faith enough to bring such things about. They knew it; every one, except a few young fools, knew it. As I crossed the corner of St. James’s Park wrapped in thought, I dodged back just in time to escape a prancing pair of greys. A stout, common-looking woman, very magnificently dressed, regarded me from the carriage with a scornful eye. “No doubt,” thought I, “a pill-vendor’s wife. . . . ”
Running through all my thoughts, surging out like a refrain, was my uncle’s master-stroke, his admirable touch of praise: “Make it all slick—and then make it go Woosh. I know you can! Oh! I know you can!”
Ewart as a moral influence was unsatisfactory. I had made up my mind to put the whole thing before him, partly to see how he took it, and partly to hear how it sounded when it was said. I asked him to come and eat with me in an Italian place near Panton Street where one could get a curious, interesting, glutting sort of dinner for eighteen-pence. He came with a disconcerting black-eye that he wouldn’t explain. “Not so much a black-eye,” he said, “as the aftermath of a purple patch. . . . What’s your difficulty?”
“I’ll tell you with the salad,” I said.
But as a matter of fact I didn’t tell him. I threw out that I was doubtful whether I ought to go into trade, or stick to teaching in view of my deepening socialist proclivities; and he, warming with the unaccustomed generosity of a sixteen-penny Chianti, ran on from that without any further inquiry as to my trouble.
His utterances roved wide and loose.
“The reality of life, my dear Ponderevo,” I remember him saying very impressively and punctuating with the nut-crackers as he spoke, “is Chromatic Conflict . . . and Form. Get hold of that and let all these other questions go. The Socialist will tell you one sort of colour and shape is right, the Individualist another. What does it all amount to? What does it all amount to? Nothing! I have no advice to give anyone,—except to avoid regrets. Be yourself, seek after such beautiful things as your own sense determines to be beautiful. And don’t mind the headache in the morning. . . . For what, after all, is a morning, Ponderevo? It isn’t like the upper part of a day!”
He paused impressively.
“What Rot!” I cried, after a confused attempt to apprehend him.
“Isn’t it! And it’s my bedrock wisdom in the matter! Take it or leave it, my dear George; take it or leave it.” . . . He put down the nut-crackers out of my reach and lugged a greasy-looking note-book from his pocket. “I’m going to steal this mustard pot,” he said.
I made noises of remonstrance.
“Only as a matter of design. I’ve got to do an old beast’s tomb.
“Wholesale grocer. I’ll put it on his corners,—four mustard pots. I dare say he’d be glad of a mustard plaster now to cool him, poor devil, where he is. But anyhow,—here goes!”
It came to me in the small hours that the real moral touchstone for this great doubting of mind was Marion. I lay composing statements of my problem and imagined myself delivering them to her—and she, goddess-like and beautiful; giving her fine, simply-worded judgment.
“You see, it’s just to give one’s self over to the Capitalistic System,” I imagined myself saying in good Socialist jargon; “it’s surrendering all one’s beliefs. We may succeed, we may grow rich, but where would the satisfaction be?”
Then she would say, “No! That wouldn’t be right.”
“But the alternative is to wait!”
Then suddenly she would become a goddess. She would turn upon me frankly and nobly, with shining eyes, with arms held out. “No,” she would say, “we love one another. Nothing ignoble shall ever touch us. We love one another. Why wait to tell each other that, dear? What does it matter that we are poor and may keep poor?”
But indeed the conversation didn’t go at all in that direction. At the sight of her my nocturnal eloquence became preposterous and all the moral values altered altogether. I had waited for her outside the door of the Parsian-robe establishment in Kensington High Street and walked home with her thence. I remember how she emerged into the warm evening light and that she wore a brown straw hat that made her, for once not only beautiful but pretty.
“I like that hat,” I said by way of opening; and she smiled her rare delightful smile at me.
“I love you,” I said in an undertone, as we jostled closer on the pavement.
She shook her head forbiddingly, but she still smiled. Then—“Be sensible!”
The High Street pavement is too narrow and crowded for conversation and we were some way westward before we spoke again.
“Look here,” I said; “I want you, Marion. Don’t you understand? I want you.”
“Now!” she cried warningly.
I do not know if the reader will understand how a passionate lover, an immense admiration and desire, can be shot with a gleam of positive hatred. Such a gleam there was in me at the serene self-complacency of that “now!” It vanished almost before I felt it. I found no warning in it of the antagonisms latent between us.
“Marion,” I said, “this isn’t a trifling matter to me. I love you; I would die to get you. . . . Don’t you care?”
“But what is the good?”
“You don’t care,” I cried. “You don’t care a rap!”
“You know I care,” she answered. “If I didn’t—If I didn’t like you very much, should I let you come and meet me—go about with you?”
“Well then,” I said, “promise to marry me!”
“If I do, what difference will it make?”
We were separated by two men carrying a ladder who drove between us unawares.
“Marion,” I asked when we got together again, “I tell you I want you to marry me.”
“We can’t marry—in the street.”
“We could take our chance!”
“I wish you wouldn’t go on talking like this. What is the good?”
She suddenly gave way to gloom. “It’s no good marrying” she said. “One’s only miserable. I’ve seen other girls. When one’s alone one has a little pocket-money anyhow, one can go about a little. But think of being married and no money, and perhaps children—you can’t be sure. . . . ”
She poured out this concentrated philosophy of her class and type in jerky uncompleted sentences, with knitted brows, with discontented eyes towards the westward glow—forgetful, it seemed, for a moment even of me.
“Look here, Marion,” I said abruptly, “what would you marry on?”
“What is the good?” she began.
“Would you marry on three hundred a year?”
She looked at me for a moment. “That’s six pounds a week,” she said. “One could manage on that, easily. Smithie’s brother—No, he only gets two hundred and fifty. He married a typewriting girl.”
“Will you marry me if I get three hundred a year?”
She looked at me again, with a curious gleam of hope.
“If!” she said.
I held out my hand and looked her in the eyes. “It’s a bargain,” I said.
She hesitated and touched my hand for an instant. “It’s silly,” she remarked as she did so. “It means really we’re—” She paused.
“Yes?” said I.
“Engaged. You’ll have to wait years. What good can it do you?”
“Not so many years.” I answered.
For a moment she brooded.
Then she glanced at me with a smile, half-sweet, half-wistful, that has stuck in my memory for ever.
“I like you!” she said. “I shall like to be engaged to you.”
And, faint on the threshold of hearing, I caught her ventured “dear!” It’s odd that in writing this down my memory passed over all that intervened and I feel it all again, and once again I’m Marion’s boyish lover taking great joy in such rare and little things.
At last I went to the address my uncle had given me in Gower Street, and found my aunt Susan waiting tea for him.
Directly I came into the room I appreciated the change in outlook that the achievement of Tono-Bungay had made almost as vividly as when I saw my uncle’s new hat. The furniture of the room struck upon my eye as almost stately. The chairs and sofa were covered with chintz which gave it a dim, remote flavour of Bladesover; the mantel, the cornice, the gas pendant were larger and finer than the sort of thing I had grown accustomed to in London. And I was shown in by a real housemaid with real tails to her cap, and great quantities of reddish hair. There was my aunt too looking bright and pretty, in a blue-patterned tea-wrap with bows that seemed to me the quintessence of fashion. She was sitting in a chair by the open window with quite a pile of yellow-labelled books on the occasional table beside her. Before the large, paper-decorated fireplace stood a three-tiered cake-stand displaying assorted cakes, and a tray with all the tea equipage except the teapot, was on the large centre-table. The carpet was thick, and a spice of adventure was given it by a number of dyed sheep-skin mats.
“Hello!” said my aunt as I appeared. “It’s George!”
“Shall I serve the tea now, Mem?” said the real housemaid, surveying our greeting coldly.
“Not till Mr. Ponderevo comes, Meggie,” said my aunt, and grimaced with extraordinary swiftness and virulence as the housemaid turned her back.
“Meggie she calls herself,” said my aunt as the door closed, and left me to infer a certain want of sympathy.
“You’re looking very jolly, aunt,” said I.
“What do you think of all this old Business he’s got?” asked my aunt.
“Seems a promising thing,” I said.
“I suppose there is a business somewhere?”
“Haven’t you seen it?”
“’Fraid I’d say something at it George, if I did. So he won’t let me. It came on quite suddenly. Brooding he was and writing letters and sizzling something awful—like a chestnut going to pop. Then he came home one day saying Tono-Bungay till I thought he was clean off his onion, and singing—what was it?”
“‘I’m afloat, I’m afloat,’” I guessed.
“The very thing. You’ve heard him. And saying our fortunes were made. Took me out to the Ho’burm Restaurant, George,—dinner, and we had champagne, stuff that blows up the back of your nose and makes you go so, and he said at last he’d got things worthy of me—and we moved here next day. It’s a swell house, George. Three pounds a week for the rooms. And he says the Business’ll stand it.”
She looked at me doubtfully.
“Either do that or smash,” I said profoundly.
We discussed the question for a moment mutely with our eyes. My aunt slapped the pile of books from Mudie’s.
“I’ve been having such a go of reading, George. You never did!”
“What do you think of the business?” I asked.
“Well, they’ve let him have money,” she said, and thought and raised her eyebrows.
“It’s been a time,” she went on. “The flapping about! Me sitting doing nothing and him on the go like a rocket. He’s done wonders. But he wants you, George—he wants you. Sometimes he’s full of hope—talks of when we’re going to have a carriage and be in society—makes it seem so natural and topsy-turvy, I hardly know whether my old heels aren’t up here listening to him, and my old head on the floor. . . . Then he gets depressed. Says he wants restraint. Says he can make a splash but can’t keep on. Says if you don’t come in everything will smash—But you are coming in?”
She paused and looked at me.
“You don’t say you won’t come in!”
“But look here, aunt,” I said, “do you understand quite? . . . It’s a quack medicine. It’s trash.”
“There’s no law against selling quack medicine that I know of,” said my aunt. She thought for a minute and became unusually grave. “It’s our only chance, George,” she said. “If it doesn’t go . . . ”
There came the slamming of a door, and a loud bellowing from the next apartment through the folding doors. “Here-er Shee Rulk lies Poo Tom Bo—oling.”
“Silly old Concertina! Hark at him, George!” She raised her voice. “Don’t sing that, you old Walrus, you! Sing ‘I’m afloat!’”
One leaf of the folding doors opened and my uncle appeared.
“Hullo, George! Come along at last? Gossome tea-cake, Susan?”
“Thought it over George?” he said abruptly.
“Yes,” said I.
I paused for a last moment and nodded yes.
“Ah!” he cried. “Why couldn’t you say that a week ago?”
“I’ve had false ideas about the world,” I said. “Oh! they don’t matter now! Yes, I’ll come, I’ll take my chance with you, I won’t hesitate again.”
And I didn’t. I stuck to that resolution for seven long years.