THE PROFESSIONAL ADMIRER
The girls stood about the door that night to bid Ione good-bye. They were genuinely sorry now that she was going, but half consoled when they heard that they would be able to hear of her from Jane Allen, The dark girl Cissy came last.
"Don't you give in or take a penny-piece from one of them!" she said, and pressed Ione's hand.
"She thinks it's your people who have been horrid to you," Jane Allen explained. "I let it go at that — I thought you would not care to have me say anything about him"
Jane Allen and Ione took the Underground Railway at the Mansion House for the station which was nearest to Audley Street, Battersea, where they were to "room" together. At the pigeon-hole they obtained third-class tickets, and went tripping and chattering down the dark steps. Ione had never been on the Underground in her life, but her heart was jubilant within her. On former visits to London she had often seen, from carriage or hansom, white wreaths of spume slowly sifting through occasional blow-holes, or belching suddenly upwards through blackened gratings, mixed with soot-flakes and jets of steam. On these occasions she had been informed by her father that an engine on the Underground was coaling up, and that the Elevated system of passenger carriage used in New York was infinitely to be preferred, being at once healthier, more accessible, cheaper to build, and infinitely more lucrative to those who controlled the stock.
On the platform one or two young men were waiting for west-bound trains. Most of them turned sharply to watch Ione's tall lithe figure and quick grace of movement. But the girl never so much as saw them. She was not even conscious of their presence, still less of their very evident admiration. Her mind was busy with what she would attempt on the morrow, where she would apply for work, and what future amends she would make to Jane Allen for her kindness.
But not a look or a whisper was lost upon Ione's companion. When the train slid alongside the platform, with that purposeful growling rush which characterises all underground trains, one of these young men, dressed in faultless frock-coat and tall glossy hat, followed Jane into the third-class compartment. He sat down opposite Ione, keeping his eyes all the time steadily fixed on her face, even when he pulled on his gloves and crossed his hands on the knob of his umbrella.
Ready anger kindled in the heart of Jane Allen, who in her turn watched him as a dour-hearted bull terrier may watch a bigger dog in order to select the exact spot on the neck for a first hold. A middle-aged, comfortable-looking woman was broadly occupying much of the middle of the opposite seat.
"Ione," said Jane Allen sharply, "you had better sit over there. This side is draughty. Perhaps the lady would be good enough to make room for you beside her."
"Aye, that I will," said the woman, with a broad country accent, "and bless yo' bonny face. I've been at t' market to buy a bit o' fish for my man's breakfast. Eh, but my William's main fond o' flounder — nobbut he can ate cod — aye, or salmon either, when he can get it."
Ione went contentedly over to the corner indicated, where, under cover of William's missus and the basket of flounders, she presently found herself deep in conversation upon the merits of fish as a regular diet for husbands. But Jane Allen moved directly in front of the young man, and stared fiercely and disdainfully back at him.
"There, mister," she seemed to say, "you can't see her you want to see. But you are welcome to stare at me, Jane Allen, as much as ever you like. I know your sort. All the same" (she meditated), "that tailor-made tweed suit of Ione's won't do. We must get her a nice black merino before she is a day older."
"Ah, lady," William's missus was saying meanwhile, all unconscious of Jane's angry by-play, "there's them that likes 'em fresh at nine for a shillin' — and they're welcome to spend 'stravagant if they can afford to fling good money in the fire, as it were. And there's them that likes 'em salted, and I winnot deny but they're tasty so, and go a long way in a family. But then, bein' briny by natur', they stimillates a thirst and sends men to the beer-shop. Not but what my William — bless him! — would scorn to do such a thing, for a more sober man - But, as I was saying, for a downright tasty dish that's as good as any Lord Mayor's banquet, give me a couple o' nice full-flaviered red herrings, with a gloss on them like a peacockses' neck, and done on the tongs over a clear fire. Why, the very smell o' them alone brings William hoppin' up them stairs three at a time as soon as ever it ketches his nose half-way down our street."
When they reached the station at which they were to get out, Ione remained obdurately interested in the merits of red herrings, as expounded by William's missus, and profoundly unconscious of the attractions of the young man who was still sitting opposite to Jane Allen. He had been trying to fascinate Ione, by circumventing with looks of admiration the voluptuous outlines of the lady of the market-basket.
William's missus was still busy at her explanation when it was time for Ione to get out. "And you see, my dear, says I to him, 'Weelum,' says I, 'I ha' been a long-sufferin' woman and a hard-workin' all my days, and I haven't come to this at my time o' life that a cherry-faced traipsin' hussy like Marthy Burton can reproach me for wearin' yellow gum-flowers in my bonnet.’ Ah, good-day to you, lady, and blessings on the sweet young face o' ye!"
For the smile had done its appointed work, and William's missus would have fought a pitched battle with Marthy Burton or any other for Ione March before she had been five minutes beside her. Yet Ione had scarcely spoken twenty words to her.
The young man in the tight frock-coat got out and walked along the platform and up the stairs immediately behind Ione and Jane. The latter kept her eyes straight before her, but, as she said afterwards, her ears were laid back till they grew perfectly stiff with listening for his footsteps. And all the while the unconscious Ione chatted gaily on, her hand on her companion's arm, for the excitement of a new life was upon her. The sounds and scents of this world of hard-working millions were like notes in a song to her. Each little gate and brass plate — they were passing the Battersea model cottages — waked a very pӕan of gladness in her heart. She was in the midst of a fresh burst of wonder and admiration at the flowers and plants which she had seen at one of the windows, when a shadow seemed to fall across them both. The frock-coated young man was at their side with his hat off, and, though his words did not reach Ione, he was apparently inquiring whether he might be permitted to "see the ladies home."
Ione looked him over with a certain cold, disapproving inspection, but she was wholly unprepared for Jane Allen's burst of passion. Left to herself, she would probably have dismissed the youth as she might an intrusive dog, and passed on her serene maiden way without a thought or a tremor. But Jane (as she herself put it) had been saving it up for this young man.
She turned upon him with her hands clenched, and a deep glow of suppressed anger in her eyes.
"You cur!" she almost hissed. "If you dare to utter another word or persist in following us another step, I’ll put this into you."
And she opened a little knife with which she did her pencil-sharpening and erasures in the office. The young man appeared half amused and half intimidated. But apparently he was used to such adventures. For he made the girls a still more profound bow, and, speaking clearly for the first time, began to assure them that, though only his sincere admiration could justify his intrusion, he could not think of their going alone through so dangerous a district, and that he was resolved to see them both safely home.
Jane Allen's teeth glittered and her lip curled with contempt in a way which might have warned any less self-satisfied wooer.
"Oh, you will — will you?" she said. "We will see about that as soon as we meet a policeman. Stand back, I say!" and she poised her arm like a black-skirted St. George getting ready to spit the dragon on a broken-bladed pen-knife.
The young man continued to smile, but now somewhat less assuredly.
"I did not mean to offend you, young lady," he said; "besides, if I may say so without offence, it was your friend's acquaintance I particularly wished to make."
"I dare say," retorted Jane shortly, "Stand out of the way!"
But the young man did not leave them.
Walking abreast, with Jane Allen in the middle, the three now arrived at a lonely, unfrequented place between the bounding walls of a large engineering works. Here the young man thought he saw his chance. Ione's air of having heard nothing alarming deceived him. He came round and walked beside her, trying to look back into her face with his most fascinating smile.
Thus, while Jane became every moment more and more speechless with indignation, they arrived opposite a gate, one half of which stood open. They saw a long array of machinery in all stages of repair and resolution into component parts, whilst a pulsing recurrent throb from somewhere unseen told of a prisoned heart of steam. Jane Allen looked through the gate with anxious eyes. Her face suddenly brightened. A figure in a dingy blue jacket was walking away from them with slow steps.
"Tom!" she cried eagerly — "Tom Adair!"
The figure in dingy blue turned, and seeing the girls, came towards them with ever-quickening steps as he caught the anxiety on Jane's face.
"Tom," she cried, "don't let this fellow follow us. He says he will go home with us, and he won't leave us - All we can do we can't stop him - Oh, I hate him!"
And Jane Allen stamped her foot, and if looks could have killed, the young man in the tall hat would have fallen dead at her feet.
Meanwhile the blue-jerkined figure which had answered to the name of Tom Adair continued to advance rapidly, yet with the same deceitful appearance of leisure. He was grimy and shiny from head to foot. His cap fairly glistened with oil and engine-black. But his eyes were blue, and shone strangely pleasant out of his streaked face. And as he took off his cap with a quick movement of respect, Ione saw that his head was covered with a crisp crop of yellow curls.
"Oh, this kind young gentleman won't let you alone, will he not? — says he is bound to see you home, does he?" said Tom Adair, with his hands in the pockets of his light loose working jacket. "Well, we will see about that."
Tom had by this time insinuated himself between Ione and her too intrusive admirer, and stood close by the gatepost. He touched a knob with his finger. An electric bell rang somewhere in the rear, and a man promptly appeared out of a little cabin like a couple of sentry-boxes placed side by side, with a turnstile in front. There was another turnstile, and a corresponding double sentry-box on the other side. But between them the high gate stood half open. The man who came out of the cabin to the left, in answer to Tom Adair's summons, had also his hands in his side pockets; but he was neatly dressed in brown tweed, and wore a hard round hat upon his head.
"Peter," said Tom Adair, "just walk with these ladies as far as the corner of Ely Street, will you? They will be all right after that. And I'll look after your gate till you get back. The night draft won't be tumbling in for an hour yet, and you’ll be back, and I'll have finished all I have to say to this gentleman, long before that."
The Professional Admirer no doubt wished by this time that he had not come, but he put a bold face on the matter and disclaimed any intention of insulting the ladies. He only wished to see them past a dangerous part of the town.
Tom Adair, standing between Ione and the young man, still kept his hands in his pockets.
"Yes," he agreed, "this part of the town is a little dangerous — for cads like you. Go on, Peter. Goodnight to you, ladies. No, you don't, sir; I have something to say to you first."
"Don't hurt him, Tom. Don't get into trouble yourself, mind!" cried Jane Allen. "He isn't worth it."
The two girls, with the friendly time-keeper of the Riverside Engineering Works in attendance, walking silent and embarrassed by their side as if he were counting their steps and checking their progress by the lampposts, turned the corner and were out of sight in a moment. Then Tom Adair's attitude underwent a sudden alteration. He was probably younger by ten years than his antagonist. Indeed, his whole appearance, in spite of the deforming grime and oil, was singularly boyish.
"Well," he said, coming nearer to the gentleman in the top hat, who stood his ground with a certain sneering confidence which betokened the professional bully, "you would not leave these ladies alone when asked."
"It is no business of yours, young fellow, whether I would or whether I would not," replied the other, putting himself into a posture of defence. "But anyway, I'll teach you to interfere where I am concerned. It will be better for you in future to keep to your smithy, and leave gentlemen alone."
"Oh, don't be in too great a hurry; I'll oblige you in a moment when the ladies are out of hearing!" said Tom Adair composedly.
"Oh—ladies," sneered the other; "that one in the check suit was a lady, was she? And your friend the little milliner was another? Ladies — ha! ha!"
Tom Adair did not answer in words. His chin sank an inch or two, and his elbows took a somewhat sharper angle where they pressed against his sides. But his hands remained easily in the pockets of his working slop. He walked quietly closer to the bully. He glanced keenly up and down the road which passed in front of the engine-shop.
There was no policeman in sight. A stray cur, with his ribs showing outside like hoops on a decrepit barrel, and his tail tucked in between his legs as though kept in place by a strong spring, slunk along the opposite side of the way. It seemed a misnomer to call Tom Adair's adversary a cur. He was well nourished, tall, and a little puffed under the eyes. His arms were in the correct posture, and his hands were clenched. Tom's hands were still in his pockets. Then something happened.
There came a couple of dull, crushing sounds, quite peculiar and indescribable, but not to be forgotten or mistaken when once heard — the impact of knuckles upon bare flesh. Tom's hands were out of his pockets now for the first time since he had lifted his cap to Ione and Jane Allen. Yet they had come so quickly that his adversary had never seen them move, till the tall hat flew one way, the rose in his button-hole went another. He himself sat down in the midst, while Tom Adair stood over him, and with his hands once more in his side pockets, besought him to get up and have some more.
But very naturally and with excellent judgment, the young man declined. Instead, with his elbow raised defensively above his head, he began to cry somewhat half-heartedly for the police.
Tom Adair stepped a little back and contemplated the bloated face, one side of which was now swelling so rapidly that the left eye was almost closed already, while a thin stream of blood and a thickening lip informed Tom where he had got in his left.
"Help! Murder! Police!" shouted the bully, but with somewhat unequal vigour.
Tom drew a whistle from his pocket.
"All right," he said cheerily; "if that is what you want, I can accommodate you in five minutes. We have an officer on the premises, and as I am foreman of the yard I can give you in charge for creating a disturbance. Don't apologise — no trouble at all; it is as easy as hammering in a tintack!"
The rascal rose quickly enough now, and without a single word he went down the road towards the river, holding a handkerchief to his face. Tom Adair looked after him. His muscles twitched with desire to take a running kick at the brute. But he only shrugged his shoulders instead, and muttered, "As Jane said, he ain't worth it! Hillo! here's Peter got back."
Peter nodded without speaking, and would have gone off at once to his sentry-box.
"Well, how did you get on with the girls, Peter?" he asked.
"Oh, so-so," he answered. Then appearing to recollect, he chuckled and said, "We had such a talk."
"Talk, Peter? I didn't know you could talk. What in the world did you talk about?"
Peter appeared to consider deeply. Then he said, "Well, I don't know as I talked much, but I listened like all afire."
Whereat he whistled melodiously and brushed the crown of his round hat with his sleeve with an ostentation of exceeding ease.
"I say, Tom, ain't she a beauty — what?" and Peter winked at his friend meaningly.
"Which?" said Tom stolidly, with a perfectly expressionless face.
Peter looked at him with contempt and incredulity.
"Which!—he asks me which. Garn, don't kid me; you don't know which is the good-looking one! I suppose you wouldn't call the - "
"Shut up, Peter," said Tom Adair suddenly, "if you don't want your nose flattened!"
"No," answered Peter, meditatively feeling that organ, "I dunno as I do, exactly. But what's happened to the fellow I left with you? Had he been up to any monkey tricks with the young ladies?"
"There's all that's left of him," said Tom loftily, pointing to a slight depression on the skirting cinder path, which ran towards the engineering shop, on which lay a desolate rose.
Then without another word he stalked haughtily within and shut the great gates.
"'Ere, Tom," cried Peter; "don't get the hump on you for nothing. I was doing for the best! 'Ow on earth was I to know that the little 'un — I mean the pretty little 'un — was your mash?"
But Tom Adair was too much offended to answer.
Peter winked at the cur dog, which had come back and was apparently on the point of shaking itself to pieces in an attempt to attract his attention. Then quite suddenly he slapped his thigh, whereat the dog, whose nerves were set on hairsprings of well-grounded distrust of all such movements, bounded away and vanished round the corner.
"What a game!" said Peter.
The abandoned rose took the time-keeper's eye. He picked it up, dusted it, and stuck it in his own button-hole. Then he turned his head to this side and that, contemplating with approval the effect upon the brown tweed. This being completed to his satisfaction, he unlocked the turnstile and took down his check-list to be ready for the night shift, whistling softly the while, “'Tis but a little faded flower!"
First serialised in 'Woman at Home' as 'The Woman of Fortune' in 1899.