It was rather by way of an experiment that I determined to try the effect of irony upon the members of the Night Club. I confess I was curious as to how it would strike Bindle, remembering that remarkable definition of irony as “life reduced to an essence.” The story had been told me by Old Archie, if he had another name none of us had ever heard it, who keeps a coffee-stall not far from Sloane Square. He was a rosy-faced little fellow, as nippy as a cat in spite of his seventy years, and as cheerful as a sparrow. He has seen life from many angles, and there has come to him during those three score years and ten a philosophy that seems based on the milk of human kindness.
Had he been gifted with a ready pen, he could have written a book that would have been valuable as well as interesting. “A man shows ‘is ‘eart an’ a woman ‘er soul round a coffee-stall,” was one of his phrases that has clung to my memory. “Lord bless you, sir,” he said on another occasion, “there’s good an’ bad in everyone. Even in a rotten apple the pips is all right.”
I chose a night for Old Archie’s story when I knew there would be a full attendance, and without anything in the nature of an introduction began the tale as he had told it to me.
In arriving at a determination to marry, Robert Tidmarsh, as in all things, had been deliberate. It was an act, he told himself, that he owed to the success he had achieved. From the time when he lived with his parents in a depressing tenement house in Boulger Street, Barnsbury, Robert Tidmarsh had been preoccupied with his career. It had become the great fetish of his imagination.
In childhood it had brought down upon him scorn and ridicule. Studious habits were not popular in Boulger Street; but Robert remained resolute in his pursuit of success. He saw that in time the star of his destiny would take him far from Boulger Street—it had. At the age of thirty-eight he was head clerk to Messrs. Middleton, Ratchett & Dolby, Solicitors, of 83 Austin Friars, E.C., wore a silk hat and frock-coat, lived at Streatham, drew a salary of two hundred and thirty pounds a year and had quite a considerable sum in the bank. Boulger Street had been left far behind.
In its way Boulger Street was proud of him; it had seen him mount the ladder step by step. It had made him, nourished him, neglected him, ridiculed him, and later, with the servility of a success-loving plebeian, it respected and worshipped him. He remained its standard by which to measure failure. The one thing it did not do was to imitate him.
Robert saw that, economically, the way was clear before him. His career demanded the sacrifice; for somehow he could never quite rid his mind of the idea that marriage was a sacrifice. Such considerations belonged, however, to a much earlier stage of his reasoning. Whatever he had to resign was laid upon the altar of ambition. If destiny demanded sacrifice, he would tender it without hesitation, without complaint.
As he had climbed the ladder of success, Robert found to his surprise that his horizon was enlarging; but he was not deceived into the belief that it would continue to expand to infinity. Being something of a philosopher, he knew that there must be limitations. In a vague, indeterminate way he was conscious that he lacked some quality necessary to his continued progression. He could not have put it into words; but he was conscious that there was something holding him back.
Could he at twenty-one have started where he was at thirty-eight, there might have been a prospect of achieving greatness for the house of Tidmarsh. This he now knew to be impossible, and he wasted no time in vain regrets. His reason told him that, but for some curious shuffling of the cards, he was unlikely to rise much higher. “But should twenty-six years of work and sacrifice be allowed to pass for nothing?” He could not himself climb much higher, but if a son of his were to start from the social and intellectual rung whereon he now stood, there would be a saving of twenty-six years. Then again, his son would have the advantage of his father’s culture, position, experience. Slowly the truth dawned upon him; he was destined to play Philip to his son’s Alexander. From the moment that Robert Tidmarsh reached this conclusion marriage became inevitable.
For weeks he pondered on the new prospect he saw opening out before him. He was pleased with its novelty. The weakness of the reasoning that a son starts from where his father stands did not appear to strike him. With a new interest and energy he walked through miles of streets adorned with the latest architectural achievements in red brick and stucco. It was characteristic of him that he had fixed upon the avenue that was to receive him, long before his mind turned to the serious problem of finding a suitable partner in his enterprise.
Robert Tidmarsh’s views upon women were nebulous. Hitherto girls had been permitted to play no part in his life. He had studiously avoided them. A young man, he had told himself, could not very well nurture a career and nourish a wife at the same time. He was not a woman-hater; he was merely indifferent; the hour had not struck.
For weeks he deliberated upon the kind of wife most likely to further his ends. His first thought had been of a woman of culture, a few years younger than himself. But would the cultures war with one another? The risk was great, too great. He accordingly decided that youth and health were to be the sole requisites in the future Mrs. Tidmarsh.
At this period Robert began to speculate upon his powers of attraction. He would seek to catch a glimpse of himself in the mirrors he passed in the street. He saw a rather sedate, dark-haired man of medium height, with nondescript features and a small black moustache. In a vague way he knew that he was colourless: he lacked half-tones, atmosphere. He studied other men, strove to catch their idiom and inflection, to imitate their bearing and the angle at which they wore their hats. He began to look at women, mentally selecting and rejecting. One night he spoke to a girl in Hyde Park, but he found conversation so difficult that, with a muttered apology about catching a train and a lifting of his hat, he fled. As he hurried away he heard the girl’s opinion of him compressed into one word as she turned on her heel, midst a swirl of petticoats, to seek more congenial company. That night he found his philosophy a poor defence against his sensitiveness.
Robert Tidmarsh would have turned away in horror from the suggestion that he depended upon a casual meeting with some girl in Hyde Park to furnish him with a wife. This was intended to be merely an adventure preliminary to the real business of selection. He did not know what to talk about to women, and the knowledge troubled him. When the time came he found, as other men have found, an excellent subject ready to hand—himself.
Robert may be said to have entered seriously upon his quest when he joined a dancing-class, a tennis-club and learned to manage a punt. He afterwards saw that any one of these recreations would have supplied him with all the material he could possibly require. Eventually his choice fell upon Eva Thompson, the daughter of a Tulse Hill chemist. She was pretty, bright, and to all appearance, strong and healthy. He was introduced to the parents, who were much impressed with their potential son-in-law.
Mrs. Thompson was subjected to a dexterous cross-examination, the subtlety of which in no way deceived that astute lady. Accordingly the result was satisfactory to both parties. Eva herself at twenty-two had all the instincts of a February sparrow. To mate well she had been taught was the end and aim of a girl’s life, a successful marriage, that is from the worldly point of view, its crown of wild olive. To Robert, however, marriage was the first step towards founding a family. Risks there were, he saw this clearly, but where human forethought could remove them they should be removed. NORFLOXACIN NICOTINATE
One of the secrets of Robert’s success had been a singleness of purpose that had enabled him to pursue his own way in spite of opposing factors. He was always quietly resolute. It was not so much by his perseverance that he achieved his ends, as by the care which he bestowed upon each detail of his schemes. As in his career, so with his marriage, in itself a part of the scheme of his life. Too astute to be convinced by a mother’s prejudiced evidence, or by his own unskilled judgment, he determined to have expert opinion as to Eva’s fitness to become the mother of an Alexander. A slight chill the girl had contracted gave him his opportunity. During an evening walk, he took her to his own doctor, who had previously received instructions. Such a thing did not appear to him as callous; he was not marrying for romance, but for a definite and calculated purpose.
To some men marriage is a romance, to others a haven of refuge from rapacious landladies; but to Robert Tidmarsh it was something between a hobby and a career. He asked but one thing from the bargain, and received far more than he would have thought any man justified in expecting. From the hour that he signed the register in the vestry, the training of his son commenced.
Among other things, Robert’s reading had taught him that a child’s education does not necessarily begin with its birth. Accordingly he set himself to render his bride happy. There was a deep strain of wisdom in this man’s mind, which no amount of undigested philosophical reading could quite blot out. He saw the necessity of moulding his wife’s unformed character; and he decided that first he must render her happy. He took her to the theatre, with supper at a cheap restaurant afterwards, followed by the inevitable scurry to catch the last train. Occasionally there were week-ends in the country, or by the sea. In short the model son of one suburb became the model husband of another.
Months passed and Robert’s anxiety increased. As the critical period approached he became a prey to neurasthenia. He lost his appetite, started at every sound, was incoherent in his speech, and slept so ill as to be almost unfit for the day’s work.
There is one night that Robert Tidmarsh will never forget. For two hours he paced Schubert Avenue from end to end, his mind fixed on what was happening in the front bedroom of Eureka Lodge. The biting East wind he did not feel. He was above atmospheric temperatures. His life’s work, he felt, was about to be crowned or——he would not permit himself to give even a moment’s thought to the alternative. The suspense was maddening. As he paced the Avenue he strove to think coherently. He strove to compare his own childhood with that which should be the lot of his son. Coherent thought he found impossible. Everything in his mind was chaotic. Had he really any mind at all? Would he lose his reason entirely? Then he fell to wondering what they would do with him if he went mad?
He had got to this point, and had just turned round, when he saw that the front door of Eureka Lodge was open and a woman’s figure standing out against the light. With a thumping heart, Robert ran the fifty yards that separated him from the silhouetted figure as he had not run since boyhood. What could it mean—a mishap? As he stopped at the gate, his trembling fingers fumbling with the latch, he heard a voice that seemed to come from no-where telling him that his ambition had been realised. For the first time in his manhood he felt the tears streaming down his face as he clutched at the gate-post sobbing. Fortunately the woman had fled back to her post, and he was spared what to him would have appeared an intolerable humiliation.
During the days immediately following that night of torture, Robert felt that his life was to be crowned indeed. Hitherto the great moment of his career had been when he was called into Mr. Middleton’s room, and, in the presence of the other partners, told that he was to be promoted to the position of chief clerk. Now a greater had arrived, and from that hour, when a son was born to the ambitious and self-made solicitor’s clerk, his life became one series of great moments.
Robert Tidmarsh early found the rearing of a man child productive of grave anxieties. The slightest deviation from what he considered to be the normal condition of infants produced in him a frenzy of alarm. His forethought had provided books upon the rearing of infants. He consulted them and his fears increased. Convulsions held for him a subtle and petrifying horror. A more than usually robust exhibition of crying on the part of Hector Roland (as the child was christened) invariably produced in his father’s mind dismal forebodings. In time, however, he became more controlled, and the arrival of the customary period of measles, whooping-cough, scarlet-fever and other childish ailments found him composed if anxious.
But nervous solicitude for the boy’s health did not in the least interfere with the father’s dominant preoccupation. The question of education was never wholly absent from his thoughts. With so pronounced a tendency to narrowness, it was strange to find with what wisdom and foresight he entered upon his task. As if by instinct he saw that influence alone could achieve his object. He would form no plan, he would guide, not direct his son’s genius. Above all he would not commit the supreme indiscretion of taking anyone into his confidence. Sometimes he was tempted to tell Eva of his ambition, he yearned for sympathy in his great undertaking, but he always triumphed over this weakness.
Eva was a little puzzled at his solicitude about her health, and the frequent cross-questionings to which she was subjected as to what she ate and drank; but woman-like she saw in this only evidence of his devotion. He talked often of children whose lives had been imperilled by injudicious indulgence on the part of their mothers. When the time came for the child to be fed by hand, Robert made the most careful enquiries of the doctor and his father-in-law as to the best and most nutritious infant foods. The result of all this was that the child showed every tendency to become a fine healthy young animal.
But in the care of the body, Robert Tidmarsh by no means neglected the budding mind of his infant son. When the period of toys and picture-books arrived, the same careful discrimination was shown. The old fairy stories, with well-printed illustrations, diverted the young Hector’s mind just as the best foods nourished his body. When he tired of literature there were cheap mechanical toys, bought in the hope of stimulating the germ of enquiry as it should manifest itself. People shook their heads and thought such extravagance unwarranted; but Robert smiled. They did not share his secret.
4As the years passed and Hector grew up into a sturdy youngster, his father watched furtively for some sign as to the direction that his genius was to take; but Hector, as if desirous of preserving to himself the precious knowledge, refused to evidence any particular tendency beyond a healthy appetite, a robust frame and a general enjoyment of life.
With the selection of Hector’s first school, an affair productive of acute anxiety and many misgivings, commenced the education proper of the man-to-be. The first official report, so eagerly awaited, was noncommittal; the second proved little better, and the third seemed to indicate that Hector was by no means an assiduous student. If the boy evinced no marked tendency towards the acquirement of book-learning, he showed an unmistakable liking for out-door sports and stories of adventure. He was encouraged to read the works of “healthy” writers such as Kingston and Ballantyne, strongly recommended by the book-seller who had charge of Robert Tidmarsh’s literary conscience. In the winter evenings the boy would pore over the thrilling adventures of the heroes with an attention that did not fail to arouse his father’s hopes.
The first tragedy between this Philip and Alexander was the discovery, in the pocket of the younger, of a copy of The Firebrand of the Pacific; or The Pirate’s Oath, a highly-coloured account of doings of a particularly sanguinary cut-throat. On this occasion Robert Tidmarsh showed something almost akin to genius. He took the book and deliberately read it from cover to cover, subsequently returning it without comment to his nervously-expectant son. The next evening he brought home a copy of The Treasure Island, recommended by the bookseller as the finest boy’s book ever written, and without a word gave it to Hector. After dinner, the Tidmarshes always “dined,” Hector dutifully commenced to read. At nine o’clock his mother’s reminder that it was bed-time was received with a pleading look and an appeal for another five minutes, to which Robert signified assent. At ten o’clock Hector reluctantly said good-night and went to bed. At five the next morning he was again with John Silver. By six o’clock in the afternoon the book was finished and Hector was at the station to meet his father. As they walked home Robert felt a crumpled paper thrust into his hand. It was The Firebrand of the Pacific. Robert has never been able to determine if this was not after all the moment of his life.
At the age of ten Hector was placed at a school of some repute in the South West of London, and three months later at the Annual Sports won the Junior Hundred Yards and Junior Quarter of a Mile scratch. Robert was pleased when he heard of the achievement, but he was no Greek, and the winning of the parsley wreath was not what he had in mind for his son; still it was gratifying to see the boy outshine his fellows.
Hector showed an ever-increasing love of outdoor sports. Cricket, football, running, jumping—nothing came amiss to him. His father watched in vain for some glimmerings of the genius that his imagination told him would develop sooner or later. His hope had been that, by means of scholarships, his son might reach Oxford or Cambridge, for he had all the middle-class exaggerated opinion of the advantages of a University education. He saw him a senior wrangler, he saw his photograph in the papers, heard himself interviewed as to his son’s early life and pursuits. From these dreams he would awaken to renewed exertions; but always with the same lack of success.
Unfortunately perhaps for both, Robert Tidmarsh saw little in his son’s successes. Athletics were with him incidents in a career, incapable of being glorified into achievements. To him a judge was not a judge because he had won his blue, but rather in spite of it. He could not very well expostulate. No man, as Robert clearly saw, has a right to rebuke a son for failing to realise his father’s ambitions for him. For one thing, he had no very clear idea himself what those ambitions were. All he was conscious of was a feeling that in some way or other Hector Tidmarsh was to carry on the torch that he, Robert Tidmarsh, had lighted. He was to achieve fame in some channel of life; but it must be a material fame, one that would make him a celebrity. It never occurred to Tidmarsh père that a man capable of making a century at cricket, or being the best centre-forward in the district, could be worthy of a place among a nation’s contemporary worthies.
At sixteen Hector left school, regretted by masters and scholars alike, for his was a nature that commanded liking. By the influence of Mr. Ratchett, who had always been particularly partial to his chief clerk and, as an old Oxford cricket blue, was much interested in his clerk’s son, Hector was articled to a solicitor. In a flash Robert Tidmarsh saw the possibility of his cherished dream being realised. He recalled instances of young men who had achieved fame in the field and subsequently become successful in the more serious walks of life. He watched the boy closely, talked to him of law, encouraged him to study, pointed out the greatness of this golden opportunity. But in vain, the boy’s heart was in sport, not in law.
Sometimes in introspective moments the father examined himself as to how he had filled the role of Philip. Had he failed? Was he the cause? Could he have prevented what now appeared highly probable, the fluttering to earth of his house of cards? He had never been harsh, had he erred by being over lenient?
As he watched Hector, it slowly dawned upon him that for the first time in his life he was about to experience failure. His son was doomed to be lost in the flood of the commonplace, would be respectable, comfortably off, live at Streatham or Balham; but could never become famous. When this conviction became fixed in Robert Tidmarsh’s mind, he grew gloomy and depressed. The dice had gone against him. It was fate. It is only a long line of ancestors that enables a man to play a losing game. The Tidmarsh blood lacked that tenacity and fire that comes with tradition. It remained only to wait and hope and speculate from what quarter the blow would fall.
At nineteen Hector received an invitation to play for the Surrey Colts. He “came off,” making a dashing fifty. Mr. Rachett was there to shake the young giant warmly by the hand as he returned to the pavilion, but not his chief clerk. In the heart of the disappointed father there was a dull resentment against sport in general. He saw in it a siren who had bewitched his son, and diverted him from the path he should have trod. His secret was hard to keep. He needed sympathy, someone to tell him that he had done a great deal if not so much as he had anticipated.
One October morning the moment of final dis-illusionment arrived. When he came down to breakfast Hector was waiting in the dining-room with a copy of The Sportsman, which he handed to his father, at the same time pointing to a long description of a football match between two well-known league clubs; it was headed “A Man of Genius,” and ran:
“The outstanding feature of the game was the marvellous display of the young amateur, Mr. Hector Tidmarsh, who was given a trial at centre forward in the home team. His pace, his subtlety, his bustling methods stamped him as a great centre-forward. The way he kept his wings together was a revelation. Time after time the quintette raced away as if opposition did not exist. The young amateur seemed to have hypnotised his professional confrères. His shooting was equal to his feinting, and his forward-passing such as has not been seen for many a day. In short he is the greatest find of the season, or of many seasons for that matter. The directors of the —— Club are to be congratulated in having discovered a man of genius.”
Robert Tidmarsh put down the paper and looked at his son; but happily bereft at the Comic Spirit, he merely articulated some commonplace words of congratulation. That morning two disappointed men commenced their breakfasts, the father realising that his cherished ideal had finally been shattered; the son depressed because a carefully planned surprise had been productive of only a few colourless words, and upon them both smiled a proud wife and happy mother, to whom fame for those she loved, be it in what form it may, was a great and glorious gift to be welcomed with laughter and with tears.
I lay aside the manuscript and proceeded to light a cigarette. As a rule at the end of a reading there is a babel of comment. To-night there was an unusual silence. I looked round the room. There was a far-away look in Sallie’s eyes, which seemed unusually bright. Dick Little was gazing straight in front of him, Bindle was recharging his pipe with great deliberation and care. The Boy was lost in the contemplation of his finger nails.
“Silly ass!”
It was Angell Herald who had broken the silence, and snapped the thread. All eyes turned in his direction. Bindle, who was just in the act of lighting his pipe, paused and gazed curiously at Angell Herald over the flame of the match, then he turned to me and I saw that he understood.
It was Windover, however, who expressed the opinion of the Club upon Angell Herald’s comment, when he muttered loud enough for all to hear:
“Oh! for the jawbone of an ass!”