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The Amateur Gentleman (Chapter67)

2006-08-28 16:20

  Chapter LXVII. Which Gives Some Account of the Worst Place in the World

  A bad place by day, an evil place by night, an unsavory place at all times is Giles's Rents, down by the River.

  It is a place of noisome courts and alleys, of narrow, crooked streets, seething with a dense life from fetid cellar to crowded garret, amid whose grime and squalor the wail of the new-born infant is echoed by the groan of decrepit age and ravaging disease; where Vice is rampant and ghoulish Hunger stalks, pale and grim.

  Truly an unholy place is Giles's Rents, down by the River.

  Here, upon a certain evening, Barnabas, leaning out from his narrow casement, turned wistful-eyed, to stare away over broken roof and chimney, away beyond the maze of squalid courts and alleys that hemmed him in to where, across the River, the sun was setting in a blaze of glory, yet a glory that served only to make more apparent all the filth and decay, all the sordid ugliness of his surroundings.

  Below him was a dirty court, where dirty children fought and played together, filling the reeking air with their shrill clamor, while slatternly women stood gossiping in ragged groups with grimy hands on hips, or with arms rolled up in dingy aprons. And Barnabas noticed that the dirty children and gossiping women turned very often to stare and point up at a certain window a little further along the court, and he idly wondered why.

  It had been a day of stifling heat, and even now, though evening was at hand, he breathed an air close and heavy and foul with a thousand impurities.

  Now as he leaned there, with his earnest gaze bent ever across the River, Barnabas sighed, bethinking him of clean, white, country roads, of murmuring brooks and rills, of the cool green shades of dewy woods full of the fragrance of hidden flower and herb and sweet, moist earth. But most of all he bethought him of a certain wayside inn, an ancient inn of many gables, above whose hospitable door swung a sign whereon a weather-beaten hound, dim-legged and faded of tail, pursued a misty blur that by common report was held to be hare; a comfortable, homely inn of no especial importance perhaps, yet the very best inn to be found in all broad England, none the less. And, as he thought, a sudden, great yearning came upon Barnabas and, leaning his face between his hands, he said within himself:

  "'I will arise, and go to my father!'"

  But little by little he became aware that the clamor below had ceased and, glancing down into the court, beheld two men in red waistcoats, large men, bewhiskered men and square of elbow. Important men were these, at sight of whom the ragged children stood awed and silent and round of eye, while the gossiping women drew back to give them way. Yes, men of consequence they were, beyond a doubt, and Barnabas noticed that they also stared very often at a certain window a little further up the court and from it to a third man who limped along close behind them by means of a very nobbly stick; a shortish, broadish, mild-looking man whose face was hidden beneath the shadow of the broad-brimmed hat. Nevertheless at sight of this man Barnabas uttered an exclamation, drew in his head very suddenly and thereafter stood, listening and expectant, his gaze on the door like one who waits to meet the inevitable.

  And after a while, he saw the latch raised cautiously, and the door begin to open very slowly and noiselessly. It had opened thus perhaps some six inches when he spoke:

  "Is that you, Mr. Shrig?"

  Immediately the door became stationary and, after some brief pause a voice issued from behind it, a voice somewhat wheezing and hoarse.

  "Which your parding I ax, sir," said the voice, "which your parding I 'umbly ax, but it ain't, me being a respectable female, sir, name o' Snummitt, sir——charing, sir, also washing and clear-starching, sir!"

  Hereupon, the door having opened to its fullest, Barnabas saw a stout, middle-aged woman whose naturally unlovely look had been further marred by the loss of one eye, while the survivor, as though constantly striving to make amends, was continually rolling itself up and down and to and fro, in a manner quite astonishing to behold.

  "Which my name is Snummitt," she repeated, bobbing a curtsy and momentarily eclipsing the rolling eye under the poke of a very large bonnet, "Mrs. Snummitt, sir, which though a widder I'm respectable and of 'igh character and connections. Which me 'aving only one heye ain't by no manner of means to be 'eld ag'in me, seeing as it were took away by a act o' Providence in the shape of another lady's boot-'eel sixteen summers ago come Michaelmas."

  "Indeed," said Barnabas, seeing Mrs. Snummitt had paused for breath, "but what——"

  "Which I were to give you Mr. Bimby's compliments, sir, and ax if you could oblige him with the loan of a wine-glass?"

  "Mr. Bimby?"

  "Over-'ead, sir——garret! You may 'ave 'eard 'im, now and then——flute, sir, 'armonious, though doleful."

  "And he wants a wine-glass, does he?" said Barnabas, and forthwith produced that article from a rickety corner-cupboard and handed it to Mrs. Snummitt, who took it, glanced inside it, turned it upside-down, and rolled her eye at Barnabas eloquently.

  "What more?" he inquired.

  "Which I would mention, sir, or shall we say, 'int, as if you could put a little drop o' summat inside of it——brandy, say——'t would be doing a great favor."

  "Ah, to be sure!" said Barnabas. And, having poured out a stiff quantum of the spirit, he gave it to Mrs. Snummit, who took it, curtsied, and rolling her solitary orb at the bottle on the table, smiled engagingly.

  "Which I would thank you kindly on be'alf o' Mr. Bimby, sir, and, seeing it upon the tip o' your tongue to ax me to partake, I begs to say 'Amen,' with a slice o' lemming cut thin, and thank you from my 'eart."

  "I fear I have no lemon," began Barnabas.

  "Then we won't say no more about it, sir, not a word. 'Evings forbid as a lemming should come betwixt us seeing as I am that shook on account o' pore, little Miss Pell."

  "Who is Miss Pell?"

  "She's one as was, sir, but now——ain't," answered Mrs. Snummitt and, nodding gloomily, she took down the brandy in three separate and distinct gulps, closed her eyes, sighed, and nodded her poke bonnet more gloomily than before. "Little Miss Pell, sir, 'ad a attic three doors down, sir, and pore little Miss Pell 'as been and gone and——done it! Which do it I knowed she would."

  "Done what?" inquired Barnabas.

  "Five long year come shine, come rain, I've knowed pore Miss Pell, and though small, a real lady she were, but lonesome. Last night as ever was, she met me on the stairs, and by the same token I 'ad a scrubbing-brush in one 'and and a bucket in the other, me 'aving been charing for the first floor front, a 'andsome gent with whiskers like a lord, and 'oh, Mrs. Snummitt!' she sez and all of a twitter she was too, 'dear Mrs. Snummitt,' sez she, 'I'm a-going away on a journey,' she sez, 'but before I go,' she sez, 'I should like to kiss you good-by, me being so lonesome,' she sez. Which kiss me she did, sir, and likewise wep' a couple o' big tears over me, pore soul, and then, run away into 'er dark little attic and locked 'erself in, and——done it!"

  "What——what did she do?"

  "'Ung 'erself in the cupboard, sir. Kissed me only last night she did and wep' over me, and now——cold and stiff, pore soul?"

  "But why did she do it?" cried Barnabas, aghast.

  "Well, there was the lonesomeness and——well, she 'adn't eat anything for two days it seems, and——"

  "You mean that she was hungry——starving?"

  "Generally, sir. But things was worse lately on account of 'er heyes getting weak. 'Mrs. Snummitt,' she used to say, 'my heyes is getting worse and worse,' she'd say, 'but I shall work as long as I can see the stitches, and then, Mrs. Snummitt, I must try a change o' scene,' she used to say with a little shiver like. And I used to wonder where she'd go, but——I know now, and——well——the Bow Street Runners 'as just gone up to cut the pore soul down."

  "And she killed herself——because she was hungry!" said Barnabas, staring wide-eyed.

  "Oh, yes, lots on 'em do, I've knowed three or four as went and done it, and it's generally hunger as is to blame for it. There's Mr. Bimby, now, a nice little gent, but doleful like 'is flute, 'e's always 'ungry 'e is, I'll take my oath——shouldn't wonder if 'e don't come to it one o' these days. And talking of 'im I must be going, sir, and thank you kindly, I'm sure."

  "Why, then," said Barnabas as she bobbed him another curtsy, "will you ask Mr. Bimby if he will do me the pleasure to step down and take supper with me?"

  "Which, sir, I will, though Mr. Bimby I won't answer for, 'im being busy with the pore young man as 'e brought 'ome last night——it's 'im as the brandy's for. Ye see, sir, though doleful, Mr. Bimby's very kind 'earted, and 'e's always a-nussing somebody or something——last time it were a dog with a broke leg——ah, I've knowed 'im bring 'ome stray cats afore now, many's the time, and once a sparrer. But I'll tell 'im, sir, and thank you kindly."

  And in a while, when Mrs. Snummitt had duly curtsied herself out of sight, Barnabas sighed, and turned once more to stare away, over broken roof and crumbling chimney, towards the glory of the sunset. But now, because he remembered poor little Miss Pell who had died because she was so friendless and hungry, and Mr. Bimby who was "always hungry" and played the flute, he stifled his fierce yearning for dewy wood and copse and the sweet, pure breath of the country, and thought no more of his father's inn that was so very far from the sordid grime and suffering of Giles's Rents, down by the River; and setting the kettle on the fire he sank into a chair and stretching out his long legs, fell into a profound meditation.

  From this he was roused by the opening of the door, and, glancing up, beheld John Peterby. A very different person he looked from the neat, well-groomed Peterby of a week ago, what with the rough, ill-fitting clothes he wore and the fur cap pulled low over his brows; the gentleman's gentleman had vanished quite, and in his stead was a nondescript character such as might have been met with anywhere along the River, or lounging in shadowy corners. He carried a bundle beneath one arm, and cast a swift look round the room before turning to see the door behind him.

  "Ah," said Barnabas nodding, "I'm glad you're back, John, and with plenty of provisions I hope, for I'm amazingly hungry, and besides, I've asked a gentleman to sup with us."

  Peterby put down the bundle and, crossing to the hearth, took the kettle, which was boiling furiously, and set it upon the hob, then laying aside the fur cap spoke:

  "A gentleman, sir?"

  "A neighbor, John."

  "Sir," said he, as he began to prepare the tea in that swift, silent manner peculiar to him in all things, "when do you propose we shall leave this place?"

  "Why, to tell you the truth, John, I had almost determined to start for the country this very night, but, on second thoughts, I've decided to stay on a while. After all, we have only been here a week as yet."

  "Yes, sir, it is just a week since——Jasper Gaunt was murdered," said Peterby gently as he stooped to unpack his bundle. Now when he said this, Barnabas turned to look at him again, and thus he noticed that Peterby's brow was anxious and careworn.

  "I wish, John," said he, "that you would remember we are no longer master and man."

  "Old habits stick, sir."

  "And that I brought you to this dismal place as my friend."

  "But surely, sir, a man's friend is worthy of his trust and confidence?"

  "John Peterby, what do you mean?"

  "Sir," said Peterby, setting down the teapot, "as I came along this evening, I met Mr. Shrig; he recognized me in spite of my disguise and he told me to——warn you——"

  "Well, John?"

  "That you may be arrested——"

  "Yes, John?"

  "For——the murder of Jasper Gaunt. Oh, sir, why have you aroused suspicion against yourself by disappearing at such a time?"

  "Suspicion?" said Barnabas, and with the word he rose and laying his hands upon John Peterby's shoulders, looked into his eyes. Then, seeing the look they held, he smiled and shook his head.

  "Oh, friend," said he, "what matters it so long as you know my hands are clean?"

  "But, sir, if you are arrested——"

  "They must next prove me guilty, John," said Barnabas, sitting down at the table.

  "Or an accessory——after the fact!"

  "Hum!" said Barnabas thoughtfully, "I never thought of that."

  "And, sir," continued Peterby anxiously, "there are two Bow Street Runners lounging outside in the court——"

  "But they're not after me yet. So cheer up, John!" Yet in that moment, Peterby sprang to his feet with fists clenched, for some one was knocking softly at the door.

  "Quick, sir——the other room——hide!" he whispered. But shaking his head, Barnabas rose and, putting him gently aside, opened the door and beheld a small gentleman who bowed.

  A pale, fragile little gentleman this, with eyes and hair of an indeterminate color, while his clothes, scrupulously neat and brushed and precise to a button, showed pitifully shabby and threadbare in contrast with his elaborately frilled and starched cravat and gay, though faded, satin waistcoat; and, as he stood bowing nervously to them, there was an air about him that somehow gave the impression that he was smaller even than Nature had intended.

  "Gentlemen," said he, coughing nervously behind his hand, "hem!——I trust I don't intrude. Feel it my obligation to pay my respects, to——hem! to welcome you as a neighbor——as a neighbor. Arthur Bimby, humbly at your service——Arthur Bimby, once a man of parts though now brought low by abstractions, gentlemen, forces not apparent to the human optic, sirs. Still, in my day, I have been known about town as a downy bird, a smooth file, and a knowing card——hem!"

  Hereupon he bowed again, looking as unlike a "smooth file" or "knowing card" as any small, inoffensive gentleman possibly could.

  "Happy to see you, sir," answered Barnabas, returning his bow with one as deep, "I am Barnabas Barty at your service, and this is my good friend John Peterby. We are about to have supper——nothing very much——tea, sir, eggs, and a cold fowl, but if you would honor us——"

  "Sir," cried the little gentleman with a quaver of eagerness in his voice and a gleam in his eye, both quickly suppressed, "hem!——indeed I thank you, but——regret I have already supped——hem——duck and green peas, gentlemen, though I'll admit the duck was tough——deuced tough, hem! Still, if I might be permitted to toy with an egg and discuss a dish of tea, the honor would be mine, sirs——would be mine!"

  Then, while Peterby hastened to set the edibles before him, Barnabas drew up a chair and, with many bows and flutterings of the thin, restless hands, the little gentleman sat down.

  "Indeed, indeed," he stammered, blinking his pale eyes, "this is most kind, I protest, most kind and neighborly!" Which said, he stooped suddenly above his plate and began to eat, that is to say he swallowed one or two mouthfuls with a nervous haste that was very like voracity, checked himself, and glancing guiltily from unconscious Barnabas to equally unconscious Peterby, sighed and thereafter ate his food as deliberately as might be expected of one who had lately dined upon duck and green peas.

  "Ah!" said he, when at length his hunger was somewhat assuaged, "you are noticing the patch in my left elbow, sir?"

  "No indeed!" began Barnabas.

  "I think you were, sir——every one does, every one——it can't be missed, sir, and I——hem! I'm extreme conscious of it myself, sirs. I really must discard this old coat, but——hem! I'm attached to it——foolish sentiment, sirs. I wear it for associations' sake, it awakens memory, and memory is a blessed thing, sirs, a very blessed thing!"

  "Sometimes!" sighed Barnabas.

  "In me, sirs, you behold a decayed gentleman, yet one who has lived in his time, but now, sirs, all that remains to me is——this coat. A prince once commended it, the Beau himself condescended to notice it! Yes, sirs, I was rich once and happily married, and my friends were many. But——my best friend deceived and ruined me, my wife fled away and left me, sirs, my friends all forsook me and, to-day, all that I have to remind me of what I was when I was young and lived, is this old coat. To-day I exist as a law-writer, to-day I am old, and with my vanished youth hope has vanished too. And I call myself a decayed gentleman because I'm——fading, sirs. But to fade is genteel; Brummell faded! Yes, one may fade and still be a gentleman, but who ever heard of a fading ploughman?"

  "Who, indeed?" said Barnabas.

  "But to fade, sir," continued the little gentleman, lifting a thin, bloodless hand, "though genteel, is a slow process and a very weary one. Without the companionship of Hope, life becomes a hard and extreme long road to the ultimate end, and therefore I am sometimes greatly tempted to take the——easier course, the——shorter way."

  "What do you mean?"

  "Well, sir, there are other names for it, but——hem!——I prefer to call it 'the shorter way.'"

  "Do you mean——suicide?"

  "Sir," cried Mr. Bimby, shivering and raising protesting hands, "I said 'the shorter way.' Poor little Miss Pell——a lady born, sir——she used to curtsy to me on the stairs, she chose 'the shorter way.' She also was old, you see, and weary. And to-night I met another who sought to take this 'shorter way'——but he was young, and for the young there is always hope. So I brought him home with me and tried to comfort him, but I fear——"

  Peterby sprang suddenly to his feet and Mr. Bimby started and turned to glance fearfully towards the door which was quivering beneath the blows of a ponderous fist. Therefore Barnabas rose and crossing the room, drew the latch. Upon the threshold stood Corporal Richard Roe, looming gigantic in the narrow doorway, who, having saluted Barnabas with his shining hook, spoke in his slow, diffident manner.

  "Sir," said he, "might I speak a word wi' you?"

  "Why, Corporal, I'm glad to see you——come in!"

  "Sir," said the big soldier with another motion of his glittering hook, "might I ax you to step outside wi' me jest a moment?"

  "Certainly, Corporal," and with a murmured apology to Mr. Bimby, Barnabas followed the Corporal out upon the gloomy landing and closed the door. Now at the further end of the landing was a window, open to admit the air, and, coming to this window, the Corporal glanced down stealthily into the court below, beckoning Barnabas to do the like:

  "Sir," said he in a muffled tone, "d' ye see them two coves in the red weskits?" and he pointed to the two Bow Street Runners who lounged in the shadow of an adjacent wall, talking together in rumbling tones and puffing at their pipes.

  "Well, Corporal, what of them?"

  "Sir, they're a-waiting for you!"

  "Are you sure, Corporal? A poor creature committed suicide to-day; I thought they were here on that account."

  "No, sir, that was only a blind, they're a-watching and a-waiting to take you for the Gaunt murder. My pal Jarsper knows, and my pal Jarsper sent me here to give you the office to lay low and not to venture out to-night."

  "Ah!" said Barnabas, beginning to frown.

  "My pal Jarsper bid me say as you was to keep yourself scarce till 'e's got 'is 'ooks on the guilty party, sir."

  "Ah!" said Barnabas, again, "and when does he intend to make the arrest?"

  "This here very night, sir."

  "Hum!" said Barnabas thoughtfully.

  "And," continued the Corporal, "I were likewise to remind you, sir, as once your pals, ever and allus your pals. And, sir——good-night, and good-luck to you!" So saying, the Corporal shook hands, flourished his hook and strode away down the narrow stairs, smiling up at Barnabas like a beneficent giant.

  And, when he was gone, Barnabas hurried back into the room and, taking pen and paper, wrote this:

  You are to be arrested to-night, so I send you my friend, John Peterby. Trust yourself to his guidance.

  BEVERLEY.

  And having folded and sealed this letter, he beckoned to Peterby.

  "John," said he, speaking in his ear, "take this letter to Mr. Barrymaine, give it into his hand, see that he leaves at once. And, John, take a coach and bring him back with you."

  So Peterby the silent thrust the note into his bosom, took his fur cap, and sighing, went from the room; and a moment later, glancing cautiously through the window, Barnabas saw him hurry through the court and vanish round the corner.

  Then Barnabas turned back to the table, and seeing how wistfully Mr. Bimby eyed the teapot, poured him out another cup; and while they drank together, Mr. Bimby chatted, in his pleasant way, of bitter wrong, of shattered faith and ideals, of the hopeless struggle against circumstance, and of the oncoming terror of old age, bringing with it failing strength and all the horrors of a debtor's prison. And now, mingled with his pity, Barnabas was conscious of a growing respect for this pleasant, small gentleman, and began to understand why a man might seek the "shorter way," yet be no great coward after all.

  So Mr. Bimby chattered on and Barnabas listened until the day declined to evening; until Barnabas began to hearken for Peterby's returning footstep on the uncarpeted stair outside. Even in the act of lighting the candles his ears were acutely on the stretch, and thus he gradually became aware of another sound, soft and dull, yet continuous, a sound difficult to locate. But as he stood staring into the flame of the candle he had just lighted, striving meanwhile to account for and place this noise, Mr. Bimby rose and lifted a thin, arresting hand.

  "Sir," said he, "do you hear anything?"

  "Yes. I was wondering what it could be."

  "I think I can tell you, sir," said Mr. Bimby, pointing to a certain part of the cracked and blackened ceiling; "it is up there, in my room——listen!"

  And now, all at once Barnabas started and caught his breath, for from the floor above came a soft trampling as of unshod feet, yet the feet never moved from the one spot.

  "Indeed," sighed Mr. Bimby, "I greatly fear my poor young friend is ill again. I must go up to him, but first——may I beg——"

  "Sir," said Barnabas, his gaze still fixed upon a certain corner of the ceiling, "I should like to go with you, if I may."

  "You are very good, sir, very kind, I protest you are," quavered Mr. Bimby, "and hem! if I might suggest——a little brandy——?" But even as Barnabas reached for the bottle, there came a hurry of footsteps on the stair, a hand fumbled at the door and Mr. Smivvle entered with Peterby at his heels.

  "Oh, Beverley!" he exclaimed, tugging nervously at his whiskers, "Barry's gone——most distressing——utterly vanished! I just happened to——ah——pop round the corner, my dear fellow, and when I came back he'd disappeared, been looking for him everywhere. Poor Barry——poor fellow, they've got him safe enough by now! Oh Gad, Beverley! what can I do?"

  "Sit down," said Barnabas, "I think he's found." So saying he turned and followed Mr. Bimby out of the room.

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