Authors: Patrick Hamilton
Tags: #Fiction, #Literary, #Classics
The Governor began it. His voice was scarcely heard above the din. ‘Now then, gentlemen, please!’ he cried. ‘Last orders, please!’ And he looked over at Bob.
Bob, serving in the lounge, waited a few moments. Then ‘Last orders, please, gentlemen! Time please!’ he cried, in sternly expressionless tones.
Bob did not suppose that this would cause any modification in the great, grumbling growl of talk around him, and it did not. Possibly, in the far recesses of vinous brains, the dark admonition was heard by a few. Possibly this manifested itself (in the persons of those few) in a sudden vague unease, a glancing round, a barely observable drop of the countenance. . . . But the infamy (or rather the absurdity) could obviously never gain popular credit. And it was, of course, an absolute absurdity, for the people in ‘The Midnight Bell’ were only just beginning to enjoy themselves.
He began again, more loudly, and more reproachfully.
‘Now then, gentlemen!
But they did not hear that, either. He paced to the door, flung it back, fastened it back, and opened his lungs.
‘NOW then, gentlemen! TIME, please!’
They had got that all right. He went to the tables in the bar, snapped up empty glasses, shoved his way through to the counter, and slammed them ferociously down.
‘TIME please, gentlemen! ALL OUT please!’
And now a kind of panic and babel fell upon ‘The Midnight Bell.’ A searching draught swept in from the open door, and suddenly the Governor lowered all the lights save one above
the bar. At this a few realized that the game was up, and left the place abruptly: others besieged Ella madly for last orders. Some of the groups dispersed with bawled farewells: others drew closer protectively, and argued the louder and more earnestly for the assault that was being made upon their happiness.
‘NOW then, gentlemen, please! LONG PAST TIME!’
He rushed about the place, filling his fingers with empty glasses, and banging them down on the counter. He was, for the moment, a bully and a braggart. And his miserable, huddled victims knew it and resented it.
But they knew also that they had to go. Suddenly one of the groups – a group of five men – broke up and filed out. It was instantly apparent that they had been responsible for the greater part of the din. There were not more than half a dozen left. A hush fell, and he had no further need to shout. His voice became quiet and full of expression.
‘Now then, gentlemen, please. It’s long past time, you know.’
A minute later, and only three remained – two drunk gentlemen, and the blind drunk gentleman. The Public Bar round the corner was empty and in darkness. The two drunk gentlemen were talking drunkenly to Ella, and the blind drunk gentleman was talking drunkenly to the air. Bob went up to him.
‘This way out, sir.’
‘S’all righ’, wair,’ said the blind drunk gentleman. ‘S’allrigh’. Wonnarseyousuth!’
‘What’s that, sir?’
‘All ee sigh God? –
all ee sigh God?’
‘Sight of God, sir? Yes, sir, all equal sir. It’s time you made for home though, isn’t it, sir?’
,’ said the blind drunk gentleman, grasping Bob’s coat with one fist, and making his point with the other, ‘then
. . . then
. . . .’
‘Why what, sir?’
‘Wize everybody s’znobbish?’
‘Couldn’t say, sir. Way of the world, I suppose, sir. No sir – this way, sir.’
‘Z’damznobbish. . . . Z’damznobbish. . . . Z’damznobbish,’ murmured the blind drunk gentleman, and, so protesting, groped his staggering way into the night.
He was followed by the two drunk gentlemen, who walked out with that too balanced strut peculiar to drunk gentlemen knowing themselves to be nothing of the sort.
‘Good night, waiter.’
‘Good night, sir. Good night.’
He went out with them, and gazed again at the cool and temperate heavens.
The blind drunk gentleman, lingering darkly, at once connected with the two drunk gentlemen, and a short conversation ensued. Unanimity was instant. Three crusaders against Snobbery, arm in arm and full of faith, staggered down towards the south side of Oxford Street, where drinks might yet be obtained and the world awaited conversion.
He came in again. Ella, about to retire, was patting her hair for the last time in her little bottle-surrounded mirror. The one light feebly lit the bar, and the silence was that ultra-silence, at once sad, and terrifying, and beautiful, of a banquet ended, of people gone. They were both highly susceptible to it.
He bolted the door. ‘Well,’ he said. ‘How’s everything?’
‘I’m surprised at you, Bob,’ said Ella, and went upstairs.
HE LESS SPECTACULAR
side of Bob’s employment revealed itself every morning. The Brass was his care, and by half-past eight he was up and rubbing. He also replaced an old with a new fire in the Lounge, but did not put a match to it until the place opened at eleven o’clock. For these activities he dispensed with his coat and collar, rolled up his shirt-sleeves, and wore professional trousers of unknown age and origin. Ella called him (accurately) a Sight.
But he exchanged few words with Ella at this time of day, drawing into himself and soothing his soul with rubbing, humming, intermittent whistling, and a tacit understanding with the dog.
For ‘The Midnight Bell’ ran to a dog. It was a belonging of the Governor’s Wife and known as Jim. It trotted placidly about with its head held high, and its brown eyes were filled with a chilling and noble aloofness. ‘Well, what do
want?’ Ella asked it every other five minutes, but it clearly did not want anything. And it wouldn’t ask you for it if it did. It was surprising, indeed, that its pure and passionless detachment from her did not finally repel Ella. But it did not needless to say. She took snub after snub all the morning, and had a profound love for the animal.
At eleven o’clock ‘The Midnight Bell’ opened. Bob resumed decent clothes and his white coat, and a few people came in. But business was very slack until about half-past twelve, when the place filled up with a sober crowd. Ham sandwiches, beef sandwiches, arrowroot biscuits and cheese, sardines or prawns on toast – all these were in constant demand and allayed the fumes of bravery. But these were mostly taken at the bar, and Bob had very little to do. The dog, by this time rather weary, came down to earth so far as to go round smelling everybody in turn (without apparent pleasure), and to trot away and occasionally get a biscuit, which it consumed in the manner of dogs – that is, by having almost to throw it out and catch it again in order to achieve a bite, and then moving its nose despondently amongst the crumbs. Bob was offered drinks, but, remembering yesterday, withheld. In the Public Bar round the corner there were corduroys, pint glasses of beer, hunks of bread and cheese, and arguments – all about as thick as they could possibly be. When, at three o’clock, it was time to turn them all out, there was no need for shouting.
He then ran upstairs, changed into clean linen and his best clothes, and made himself very spruce altogether. For this was Thursday, his Day Off, and he had not only the whole afternoon, but the whole evening as well, to spend as he wished.
It was a clear, sunny, winter’s day, and he decided first to relish his liberty in Regent’s Park. This was in accordance with a now almost regular Thursday afternoon routine. Regent’s Park, tea in the West End, a visit to the Capitol or Plaza, dinner at Lyons’ Corner House, a walk, and home.
Ella could never make out what Bob did with his Thursday afternoons. She suspected adventures. The truth, that he took them and revelled in them alone, was beyond the comprehension of so unambitious and sociable a being as herself.
Ella often thought that Bob must have, secretly, a Girl. His youth, neatness, and personableness cried out for such an assumption. She little suspected that perhaps these very qualities themselves accounted for Bob’s not having a Girl. Bob was not unaware of his advantages, and fully alive to a certain recurrent tenderness, shyness, and flexibility of Girls in his company. He was, for this reason, supremely sure of being able to get a girl when he wanted one, and so (because Providence has arranged that we may sometimes get what we want but never want what we get) he did not really want a girl. There would be a Girl one day, but at present he walked, on his Thursday afternoons, with far richer and more tremulous absorptions – those of his youth, and his aspiration, and his eighty pounds.
Most particularly his eighty pounds. Indeed, these little preliminary strolls in Regent’s Park he knew to be nothing but little eighty-pound strolls – a thing which gave him more pleasure than anything else in the world. His eighty pounds resided at the Midland Bank in the Tottenham Court Road. It had once been only forty-seven pounds, which had come to him on his mother’s death seven years ago. It had only been within the last two years or so that he had begun properly to save. He could still remember the calm satisfaction with which he had brought it up to fifty: the self-applause caused by its reaching sixty: the elation and sheer priggish conceit of seventy – and now it was eighty – eighty exactly. Having, like most of us, a congenitally decimal mind, he always enjoyed his money most when the sum was
exactly divisible by ten. Eighty-three, for instance, would be quite a bore – just a depressingly distant halting-place on the road to ninety.
Not that Bob had any greed for money itself, or had any formulated intentions towards his own. It merely stood between him and the dire need to toil, and made a man of him. And he needed this fortification more than others. For he knew now that he was a dreamer. Dreams were his life, were becoming more and more his life, and he worshipped at the shrine of dreams. Furthermore, he proposed to go on dreaming, and the solidity and mathematically appraisable achievement represented by those eighty pounds gave him exactly the reassurance he required.
Bob believed that one day his dreams would come true. This was an enormous assumption for one such as Bob, for his dreams amounted to little less than this – to govern his own life, to subdue the terrific disadvantages to which he had been born, and to become eminent amongst men. Nothing less. This was Bob’s secret – his inner life – the derivation of all those queer reticences and mysteries which so puzzled Ella when she saw volumes of Gibbon, or copies of
, lying on his bedroom table.
It was Bob’s naïve ambition, in fact, to become a great writer. He was the first to apprehend his own naïveté. Hence his secrecy – a secrecy which arose not from pride but from fear of ridicule. Ella, as a matter of fact, if he had told her, would not have thought the ambition naïve, but rather fine and plausible. But Bob was wiser than Ella, and knew it to be naïve. But he knew also how dear it was to him: and because it was a secret, and his own, he took it to his bosom like a lover, and walked with it on his walks.
Bob had not at present essayed much in the way of writing. He was in his twenty-sixth year, but still very young in spirit. He had, in abundance, that quality which perhaps most clearly characterizes youth – namely, a marvellous, unreasoning conviction that the highest and noblest things in life must, of some hidden but automatic necessity, come its way – a perfect assurance of good about to befall. And this feeling still
spread a pleasant mist around the actual exigencies and spade-work of ambition.
Nor was it certain that Bob’s love of literature was absolutely pure. It had begun, many years ago, with an admiration for the works of Conan Doyle. The simplicity, skill, and intelligence of this lovable and rather childish writer had captured his heart. He thought at one time, indeed, that this was the only author that he cared to read; but later he took to Scott.
The Fair Maid of Perth
were books he could read again and again. And then came Dumas, and
The Cloister and the Hearth
– and then, strangely enough, Washington Irving, who, with his
Conquest of Granada
, was still perhaps Bob’s favourite author. He was, to Bob, so lucid, learned, clever, sincere, and serene – a sort of sublimated Conan Doyle.
And then came Wells, whose
Outline of History
supplied his most poignant requirements, and then there was a great deal of miscellaneous and modern reading; and then came
Until this time Bob’s devotion had been natural, personal and unaffected. But with
he fell a victim, in some measure, to popularized great literature. He even began to read tabulated outlines of it and to acquire what may be called the Great-Short-Story-Of-The-World mentality. Like an idle playgoer with the drama, he became, with literature, even more interested in the names and picturesque personalities than in the actual achievements thereof. He familiarized himself with the Love Stories (rather than the greatness) of the Great.
And then he began to write short stories, and to send them in to magazines, and to have them sent back. And then he gave up doing that, and took to dreaming again – dreaming about a great novel that he would one day write. This would take the form mostly employed by young novelists who have never written any novels. That is to say, it would hardly be a novel at all, but all novels in one, life itself – its mystery, its beauty, its grotesquerie, its humour, its sadness,
its terror. And it would take, possibly, years and years to write, and it would put you in a class with Hugo, Tolstoy, and Dreiser.
HIS, THEN, WAS
Bob’s secret, which he took, this cold, sunny afternoon, first of all into Regent’s Park by the South entrance, and then up and all along by the Zoological Gardens, and at last out again by Camden Town. And then he went down Mount Street, and took it to tea with him at a small and crowded Lyons in the Hampstead Road.