Authors: Patrick Hamilton
Tags: #Fiction, #Literary, #Classics
He now employed these tactics with his first couple in the lounge. He took their order, returned to the bar, and repeated it briskly to Ella. She put the drinks on his tray; he paid her; went back, and achieved twopence. Two other couples entered almost at once. ‘The Midnight Bell,’ once started, seemed to gather force from its own impetus, and in the next half hour he served over a dozen tables.
By this time, too, the bar itself was filling, and Ella also was very busy. She was, however, in spite of this, in conversation with a young man in plus fours. That is to say, there was a young man in plus fours at one end of the bar to whom Ella, after each fitful and furious outburst of energy, would return.
When she returned she would continue the conversation where it had been left off. But if she had forgotten the previous conversation she would all the same return to the young man, face him, with one elbow on the bar, and look about her and hum quietly to herself until they could think of something else to talk about. The young man would sometimes hum as well. The young man, in fact, was temporarily hers; and it was a case of the young man and herself against the bar. Her work was merely parenthetic in this amiable and slightly diffident relationship.
Ella, at this phase of the evening, was seldom without someone to come back and hum to; and Bob also, at this time, generally had a friend during lulls. Already to-night he was himself in conversation with a young man of his own. This young man was connected with motors in Great Portland Street, and came into ‘The Midnight Bell’ every other night. He had much in common with Bob, and he always bought him a drink at the bar. Bob returned to him in the same way as Ella returned to her own young man, though, having a stronger personality, he did not have to hum when the conversation ran dry. Bob was never quite sure as to whether he was allowed to accept drinks from customers in this way, but it was always being done. He was very popular. Sometimes, towards the close of a busy evening, he would have as many as three friends, with an equal amount of drinks, all awaiting his company along the bar.
Because of his excess in the morning Bob had resolved to drink nothing to-night: the evening was to be penal. But now, with his first drink, his spirits rose and he believed he was going to enjoy himself. The place was filling: he had already made one and six: he experienced spiritual and physical elasticity. Moreover, although he had time for conversation, in those intermittent spurts of exertion to which his duties compelled him he was filled with all the gladness of a man who has a little too much to do at one time but is serenely conscious of being able to do it. He called out the orders in an authoritative voice to Ella, and snapped up empty glasses to return to the bar with the verve and rapidity of a performer.
ND SO THE
evening wore on. Eight o’clock came, and crept to a quarter past. The Lounge was filled with couples: the Bar was packed with men. People were already making remarks about Sardines, and the whole house was filled with the level ebullience of tongues. The Governor and his wife were down in their bar, the former in conversation with a customer, the latter emulating Ella in the performance of that infinitely rapid sequence of wobbling and insecure dexterities with bottle and glass which falls to the lot of the barmaid when the house is full.
And behind all this blurred noise and fuss, and distinct from it, and as though it were some kind of accompaniment to it, came the continual crash of the till, and the blithe creaking of the door as each newcomer entered.
No one could have said how, or by what stages it had happened; but the atmosphere now prevailing was as different from what it was when the place first opened as a prayer meeting is different from a naval action. A similar metamorphosis had taken place in Mr. Sounder. He was now at a table in the lounge, and with the aid of five beers he had spilled words upon three different acquaintances since entering. His present acquaintance was at this moment looking at a letter in
. Mr. Sounder was leaning back and puffing out his cigarette smoke as one who would infer it was a very moderate effort, though, regarded purely as a Little Thing Turned Out from Time to Time, he rather thought it would pass. . . .
His acquaintance, so far as Bob could see, was evidently going one further, and thinking it was Very Good. . . . Mr. Sounder’s attitude towards the house and Bob was now completely altered. They were his very own. He rapped on the table with his glass when his friend desired to give an order, and he chaffed Bob good-humouredly for his laziness.
In the occasional breaks between toil which Bob still managed to hew out for himself, the creaking of the door served him well. In that it announced every invasion before it
took place, he was able to look up and see whether his services would be required. It was his business, in fact, to listen to that door. For besides serving his customers, it was his duty to protect them from the importunities of all those husky-voiced social miscarriages who, entering furtively and hoping not to be seen, endeavoured to sell as many confidential bootlaces, studs, watches, buttons,
, or necklaces as they possibly could before he dismissed them with a curt ‘Not this side, please!’ Only one sort of mendicant was allowed in the Saloon – those from the Salvation Army, who seldom profited by less than two shillings nightly.
Nor was Bob the only one to listen to that door. Widely apart in life as were the different groups along the bar, there was sufficient of a collective festal spirit amongst them to cause a faint and obscure suspicion, or even resentment, to arise against the newcomer. Each newcomer, at least, had to submit to a very brief, perhaps even unconscious, inspection before immediate loss of identity in the crowd. And it was for this reason that every creak of the door was coincident with a minute pause, a barely noticeable modification of noise, as the interloper came forward to the bar or sat down at a table.
Now so far, apart from the fact that business was exceptionally good, the demeanour of the evening had presented no irregularities, and did not appear to be about to do so. But now, at twenty minutes past nine, there occurred a trivial event, which was far from being unique, but which was at the same time a little out of the common. While the noise was at its height the door creaked open again and two figures entered – a young woman and a young girl – passing straight through the bar and sitting down at a table in the lounge.
Now this passing through was accomplished in less than fifteen seconds, but there was something which subtly distinguished it from any other such intrusion. To begin with, that minute pause and modification of noise which greeted every newcomer was in this case tremendously emphasized. Indeed, if you had magnified it a dozen times you would have had a positive hush. It was almost as though someone had suddenly shouted too loudly, or as though a bottle had been smashed.
Nearly all eyes were turned upon the couple; many people ceased speaking; and the loudest speakers tempered their tones.
This was all very brief, ceasing immediately, and as though with a breath of relief, directly the couple was seated; and its origin lay, of course, in the appearance and demeanour of the couple. But what it was about these two that caused their so singular reception was not perhaps susceptible to immediate analysis. It was a confusion of many things.
It was not a question simply of good looks – though the heavy dark handsomeness of the elder and the blonde prettiness of the younger might well have excited scrutiny on their own account. It was not because these good looks had, in themselves, an air of being assumed, of being painted on, of being made self-conscious, and over distinct, and too explicit by the lavish use of cosmetics. It was not even the phenomenon of their bold unescortedness, or rather of their own quaint chaperonage. It was not the discrepancy between the comparative costliness of their finery and what must surely have been their original station in society. It was not the strange blending of their isolation with a certain hard and unrelenting self-sufficiency. But it was a mixture of all these things which, stirring the imagination of the crowd in ‘The Midnight Bell’, revealed them for what they were – revealed the fact that these two were beyond the reach of society because they evaded its burdens: that these two were born to toil but did not toil: that these two were for that reason bold, lazy, ruthless, and insensitive: that they were women of the street.
The brief hush and hiatus, then, which marked their entrance into good society as represented by ‘The Midnight Bell,’ was easily explained and derived from a natural feeling – the feeling, that is, which the unthinkingly upright citizen cannot help experiencing when face to face with the delinquent – a feeling which is partly curiosity and partly disgust. And as those two walked through to the lounge, under the eyes of the crowd, there took place in little what takes place on a larger scale when a pickpocket is carried smouldering
through the streets between two policemen. Though modified past all reckoning in this case, the same sensation of pity and horror, of shock and weird fascination, was present.
But this only lasted for a few seconds; and directly they were seated the place was as noisy as before – noisier than before. Bob took his tray, and went over to serve them.
E CLASSIFIED THEM
mentally as the dark one and the fair one. ‘Yes, Miss,’ he said, and smiled at the dark one.
His social instincts yet forbade the more cordial welcome of ‘Good evening, Miss,’ but his smile was an atonement.
‘I’ll have a Bass,’ she said. ‘What’re you havin’, Jenny?’
Jenny, the fair one, replied, in a sickly voice, that she thought she’d just have a tonic water.
‘Come on, dear. ’
something!’ urged the other, and looked at her friend with a kind of angry concern.
‘My Friend’s not very well,’ she explained to Bob. . . .
‘Oh,’ said Bob, and looked in a friendly way at the invalid, who smiled up at him.
‘Indigestion?’ he hazarded, rather commonly. But he was always rather common when he was embarrassed.
‘Yes. That’s right,’ she replied, in a naïve, clear, and unexpectedly childish voice, and their smile to each other conveyed a wonderful common comprehension of all the horrors and ramifications of the illness. He observed that she was much prettier than he had thought at first, and really might not be a day more than seventeen.
‘Why not have a Gin and Peppermint?’ he suggested.
‘That’s very good, isn’t it?’ she asked, in the same naïve, indolent tone.
‘Nothing like it.’ It was part of his duty to the house to prescribe Gin and Peppermint for the afflicted.
‘Well, I’ll have a Gin and Peppermint, then.’
A vague and slightly pleasurable sensation, that he had made rather a hit with the fair one, overcame him.
‘A Gin and Pep and a Bass?’
He returned to the bar, and gave the order to Ella, who remarked, as she filled the tumbler with the Bass, that she was Glad he Liked his new customers. The remark was characteristic of Ella, and his reply was equally inane.
‘What do you mean? I don’t like ’em,’ he said. But in the very moment of saying so it quaintly dawned upon him that he rather did. He was rather intrigued by his new customers.
‘Don’t you tell
,’ said Ella, put the drinks on his tray, gave him his change, and went off.
He returned to the ladies. The three beers he had had – all this time plotting their subtle loosenings along his brain – now had a sudden piece of luck and managed to release his next remark before he was ready for it. ‘There,’ he said. ‘That’ll do you all the good in the world.’
‘Sincerely hope so,’ said the invalid, and they smiled again – she with forlorn languor, he as though to brace her with his own energy. He fumbled in his pocket for the change.
‘Don’t suppose you’re ever ill, are you, waiter?’ asked the dark one.
‘Oh no. I keep pretty all right.’ He put down the change, and she expelled sixpence without a word. ‘Thank you very much,’ he said, and was about to leave.
‘Looks well enough, anyhow,’ said the invalid.
He balanced his tray on the table, and smiled down on them, committed to conversation.
‘Don’t always feel it,’ he said.
Everybody smiled, all round, and there was a difficult pause.
‘Tell you who ’e looks like, Jenny,’ said the dark one, glancing appraisingly at Bob. ‘That man we saw on the pictures the other night – what’s ’is name?’
‘I know,’ said Jenny. ‘Antonio Moreno.’
‘Yes. That’s right. He ain’t half like him, ain’t he?’
‘Only not so soppy,’ qualified Jenny.
The three of them laughed.
‘What – me like Antonio Moreno? I’ve never been told that before!’ But the compliment enriched his soul, as he stood there.
‘You are, though,’ said Jenny, gazing at him with a sudden dreamy seriousness which accorded only too well with her ingenuous face and clear blue eyes.
‘He is, though,’ affirmed the dark one. ‘Ain’t he?’
‘Yes,’ said Jenny. ‘He is.’
It appeared that he was. For a moment he did not quite know what to do about it. They looked at him.
‘Wish I had some of his money, anyway,’ he achieved at last.
‘He’s a Spaniard, isn’t he?’ asked the dark one.
‘Italian, I think,’ said Bob. ‘Not sure, though.’
There was another pause. He looked round to see if he was neglecting the house, and decided he was not.
‘You’re not a Talian, are you?’ asked Jenny, with the same slow, indolent, ingenuous, blue-eyed seriousness as before.
‘Me? No. I suppose I’m an American – strickly speaking. American father an’ Irish mother.’
‘You don’t speak like an American,’ was Jenny’s comment.
‘No. I came over here when I was five, you see. Don’t remember nothing about it. Don’t remember my father even – not properly.’ His difficulty with his negatives betrayed that he was flustered, as it always did.
‘Don’t you really?’ asked the dark one.