When I turned out with my brass plate, my trunk, and my hat-box upon the Birchespool platform, I sat down and wondered what my first move should be. Every penny was going to be of the most vital importance to me, and I must plan things within the compass of that tiny purse. As I sat pondering, there came a sight of interest, for I heard a burst of cheering with the blare of a band upon the other side of the station, and then the pioneers and leading files of a regiment came swinging on to the platform. They wore white sun-hats, and were leaving for Malta, in anticipation of war in Egypt. They were young soldiers—English by the white facings—with a colonel whose moustache reached his shoulders, and a number of fresh-faced long-legged subalterns. I chiefly remember one of the colour-sergeants, a man of immense size and ferocious face, who leaned upon his Martini, with two little white kittens peeping over either shoulder from the flaps of his knapsack. I was so moved at the sight of these youngsters going out to do their best for the dear old country, that I sprang up on my box, took off my hat, and gave them three cheers. At first the folk on my side looked at me in their bovine fashion—like a row of cows over a wall. At the second a good many joined, and at the third my own voice was entirely lost. So I turned to go my way, and the soldier laddies to go theirs; and I wondered which of us had the stiffest and longest fight before us.
I left my baggage at the office, and jumped into a tramcar which was passing the station, with the intention of looking for lodgings, as I judged that they would be cheaper than an hotel. The conductor interested himself in my wants in that personal way which makes me think that the poorer classes in England are one of the kindliest races on earth. Policemen, postmen, railway guards, busmen, what good helpful fellows they all are! This one reckoned the whole thing out, how this street was central but dear, and the other was out-of-the-way but cheap, and finally dropped me at a medium shabby-genteel kind of thoroughfare called Cadogan Terrace, with instructions that I was to go down there and see how I liked it.
I could not complain of a limited selection, for a “to let” or “apartments” was peeping out of every second window. I went into the first attractive house that I saw, and interviewed the rather obtuse and grasping old lady who owned it. A sitting-bed-room was to be had for thirteen shillings a week. As I had never hired rooms before, I had no idea whether this was cheap or dear; but I conclude it was the latter, since on my raising my eyebrows as an experiment she instantly came down to ten shillings and sixpence. I tried another look and an exclamation of astonishment; but as she stood firm, I gathered that I had touched the bottom.
“Your rooms are quite clean?” I asked, for there was a wooden panelling which suggested possibilities.
“Quite clean, Sir.”
“The officers of the garrison come sometimes.”
This took some thinking out. It had an ugly sound, but I gathered that she meant that there could be no question about the cleanliness since these gentlemen were satisfied. So the bargain was struck, and I ordered tea to be ready in an hour, while I went back to the station to fetch up my luggage. A porter brought it up for eightpence (saving fourpence on a cab, my boy!) and so I found myself in the heart of Birchespool with a base of operations secured. I looked out of the little window of my lodgings at the reeking pots and grey sloping roofs, with a spire or two spurting up among them, and I shook my teaspoon defiantly at them. “You’ve got to conquer me,” said I, “or else I’m man enough to conquer you.”
Now, you would hardly expect that a fellow would have an adventure on his very first night in a strange town; but I had—a trivial one, it is true, but fairly exciting while it lasted. Certainly it reads more like what might happen to a man in a book, but you may take it from me that it worked out just as I set it down here.
When I had finished my tea, I wrote a few letters—one to Cullingworth, and one to Horton. Then, as it was a lovely evening, I determined to stroll out and see what sort of a place it was upon which Fate had washed me up. “Best begin as you mean to go on,” thought I; so I donned my frock-coat, put on my carefully-brushed top-hat, and sallied forth with my very respectable metal-headed walking stick in my hand.
I walked down to the Park, which is the chief centre of the place, and I found that I liked everything I saw of it. It was a lovely evening, and the air was fresh and sweet. I sat down and listened to the band for an hour, watching all the family parties, and feeling particularly lonely. Music nearly always puts me into the minor key; so there came a time when I could stand it no longer, and I set off to find my way back to my lodgings. On the whole, I felt that Birchespool was a place in which a man might very well spend a happy life.
At one end of Cadogan Terrace (where I am lodging) there is a wide open space where several streets meet. In the centre of this stands a large lamp in the middle of a broad stone pedestal, a foot or so high, and ten or twelve across. Well, as I strolled along I saw there was something going on round this lamppost. A crowd of people had gathered, with a swirl in the centre. I was, of course, absolutely determined not to get mixed up in any row; but I could not help pushing my way through the crowd to see what was the matter.
It wasn’t a pretty sight. A woman, pinched and bedraggled, with a baby on her arm, was being knocked about by a burly brute of a fellow whom I judged to be her husband from the way in which he cherished her. He was one of those red-faced, dark-eyed men who can look peculiarly malignant when they choose. It was clear that he was half mad with drink, and that she had been trying to lure him away from some den. I was just in time to see him take a flying kick at her, amid cries of “Shame!” from the crowd, and then lurch forward again, with the evident intention of having another, the mob still expostulating vaguely.
If, Bertie, it had been old student days, I should have sailed straight in, as you or any other fellow would have done. My flesh crept with my loathing for the brute. But I had also to think of what I was and where I was, and what I had come there to do. However, there are some things which a man cannot stand, so I took a couple of steps forward, put my hand on the fellow’s shoulder, and said in as conciliatory and genial a voice as I could muster: “Come, come, my lad! Pull yourself together.”
Instead of “pulling himself together,” he very nearly knocked me asunder. I was all abroad for an instant. He had turned on me like a flash, and had struck me on the throat just under the chin, my head being a little back at the moment. It made me swallow once or twice, I can tell you. Sudden as the blow was, I had countered, in the automatic sort of way that a man who knows anything of boxing does. It was only from the elbow, with no body behind it, but it served to stave him off for the moment, while I was making inquiries about my windpipe. Then in he came with a rush; and the crowd swarming round with shrieks of delight, we were pushed, almost locked in each other’s arms on to that big pedestal of which I have spoken. “Go it, little ‘un!” “Give him beans!” yelled the mob, who had lost all sight of the origin of the fray, and could only see that my opponent was two inches the shorter man. So there, my dear Bertie, was I, within a few hours of my entrance into this town, with my top-hat down to my ears, my highly professional frock-coat, and my kid gloves, fighting some low bruiser on a pedestal in one of the most public places, in the heart of a yelling and hostile mob! I ask you whether that was cruel luck or not?
Cullingworth told me before I started that Birchespool was a lively place. For the next few minutes it struck me as the liveliest I had ever seen. The fellow was a round hand hitter, but so strong that he needed watching. A round blow is, as you know, more dangerous than a straight one if it gets home; for the angle of the jaw, the ear, and the temple, are the three weakest points which you present. However, I took particular care that my man did not get home; but, on the other hand, I fear that I did not do him much harm either. He bored in with his head down; and I, like a fool, broke my knuckles over the top of his impenetrable skull. Of course, theoretically I should either have stepped back and tried an undercut, or else taken him into chancery; but I must confess to feeling flurried and rattled from the blow I had had, as well as from the suddenness of the whole affair. However, I was cooling down, and I daresay should in time have done something rational, when the affray came to a sudden and unexpected end.
This was from the impatience and excitement of the crowd. The folk behind, wishing to see all that was going on, pushed against those in front, until half-a-dozen of the foremost (with, I think, a woman among them) were flung right up against us. One of these, a rough, sailor-like fellow in a jersey, got wedged between us; and my antagonist, in his blind rage, got one of his swinging blows home upon this new-comer’s ear. “What, you——!” yelled the sailor; and in an instant he had taken over the whole contract, and was at it hammer and tongs with my beauty. I grabbed my stick, which had fallen among the crowd, and backed my way out, rather dishevelled, but very glad to get off so cheaply. From the shouting which I could hear some time after I reached the door of my lodgings, I gathered that a good battle was still raging.
You see, it was the merest piece of luck in the world that my first appearance in Birchespool was not in the dock of the police-court. I should have had no one to answer for me, if I had been arrested, and should have been put quite on a level with my adversary. I daresay you think I made a great fool of myself, but I should like to know how I could have acted otherwise. The only thing that I feel now is my loneliness. What a lucky fellow you are with your wife and child!
After all, I see more and more clearly that both men and women are incomplete, fragmentary, mutilated creatures, as long as they are single. Do what they may to persuade themselves that their state is the happiest, they are still full of vague unrests, of dim, ill-defined dissatisfactions, of a tendency to narrow ways and selfish thoughts. Alone each is a half-made being, with every instinct and feeling yearning for its missing moiety. Together they form a complete and symmetrical whole, the minds of each strongest where that of the other needs reinforcing. I often think that if our souls survive death (and I believe they do, though I base my believe on very different grounds from yours), every male soul will have a female one attached to or combined with it, to round it off and give it symmetry. So thought the old Mormon, you remember, who used it as an argument for his creed. “You cannot take your railway stocks into the next world with you,” he said. “But with all our wives and children we should make a good start in the world to come.”
I daresay you are smiling at me, as you read this, from the vantage ground of your two years of matrimony. It will be long before I shall be able to put my views into practice.
Well, good-bye, my dear old chap! As I said at the beginning of my letter, the very thought of you is good for me, and never more so than at this moment, when I am alone in a strange city, with very dubious prospects, and an uncertain future. We differ as widely as the poles, you and I, and have done ever since I have known you. You are true to your faith, I to my reason—you to your family belief, I to my own ideas; but our friendship shows that the real essentials of a man, and his affinity for others, depends upon quite other things than views on abstract questions. Anyway, I can say with all my heart that I wish I saw you with that old corncob of yours between your teeth, sitting in that ricketty American-leather armchair, with the villanous lodging-house antimacassar over the back of it. It is good of you to tell me how interested you are in my commonplace adventures; though if I had not KNOWN that you were so, you may be sure that I should never have ventured to inflict any of them upon you. My future is now all involved in obscurity, but it is obvious that the first thing I must do is to find a fitting house, and my second to cajole the landlord into letting me enter into possession of it without any prepayment. To that I will turn myself to-morrow morning, and you shall know the result. Whom should I hear from the other day but Archie McLagan? Of course it was a begging letter. You can judge how far I am in a state to lose money; but in a hot fit I sent him ten shillings, which now, in my cold, I bitterly regret. With every good wish to you and yours, including your town, your State, and your great country, yours as ever.