As the great bell of St. Paul’s struck the half-hour, George Aspel wa_eminded of the main object of his visit to that part of the City. Descendin_o the street, and pondering in silent wonder on the vast literar_orrespondence of the kingdom, he strode rapidly onward, his long leg_nabling him to pass ahead of the stream of life that flowed with him, an_ausing him to jostle not a few members of the stream that opposed him.
“Hallo, sir!” “Look out!” “Mind your eye, stoopid!” “Now, then, you lamp-post, w’ere are you a-goin’ to?” “Wot asylum ’ave _you_ escaped from?” were amon_he mildest remarks with which he was greeted.
But Aspel heeded them not. The vendors of penny marvels failed to attract him.
Even the print-shop windows had lost their influence for a time; and as fo_onkeys, barrel-organs, and trained birds, they were as the dust under hi_eet, although at other times they formed a perpetual feast to hi_nsophisticated soul. “Letters, letters, letters!”
He could think of nothing else. “Fourteen hundred and seventy-seven million_f letters, etcetera, through the Post-Office in one year!” kept ringin_hrough his brain; only varied in its monotony by “that gives thirty-tw_etters per head to the entire population, and as lots of ’em can’t write, o_ourse it’s much more for those who can! Take a man one hundred and sevent_ears to count ’em!”
At this point the brilliant glare of a gin-palace reminded him that he ha_alked far and long, and had for some time felt thirsty. Entering, he calle_or a pot of beer. It was not a huge draught for a man of his size. As h_rained it the memory of grand old jovial sea-kings crossed his mind, and h_alled for another pot. As he was about to apply it to his lips, and shoo_ack his flaxen curls, the remembrance of, a Norse drinking-cup in hi_ossession—an heirloom, which could not stand on its bottom, and had therefor_o be emptied before being set down,—induced him to chuckle quietly befor_uaffing his beer.
On setting down the empty pot he observed a poor miserable-looking woman, wit_ black eye and a black bottle, gazing at him in undisguised admiration.
Instantly he called for a third pot of beer. Being supplied by the wonderin_hop-boy, he handed it to the woman; but she shook her head, and drew bac_ith an air of decision.
“No, sir,” she said, “but thank you kindly all the same, sir.”
“Very well,” returned the youth, putting the pot and a half-crown on th_ounter, “you may drink it or leave it as you please. I pay for it, and yo_ay take the change—or leave that too if you like,” he added, as he went out, somewhat displeased that his feeling of generosity had been snubbed.
After wandering a short distance he was involved in labyrinths of brick an_ortar, and suddenly became convinced that he was lost. This was however _mall matter. To find one’s way by asking it is not difficult, even in London, if one possesses average intelligence.
The first man he stopped was a Scot. With characteristic caution that worth_leared his throat, and with national deliberation repeated Aspel’s query, after which, in a marked tone of regret, he said slowly, “Weel, sir, I reall_iv not ken.”
Aspel thanked him with a sarcastic smile and passed on. His next effort wa_ith a countryman, who replied, “Troth, sur, that’s more nor I can tell ’ee,” and looked after his questioner kindly as he walked away. A policema_ppearing was tried next. “First to the right, sir, third to the left, and as_gain,” was the sharp reply of that limb of the Executive, as he passed slowl_n, stiff as a post, and stately as a law of fate.
Having taken the required turns our wanderer found himself in a peculiarl_ow, dirty, and disagreeable locality. The population was in keeping wit_t—so much so that Aspel looked round inquiringly before proceeding to “as_gain.” He had not quite made up his mind which of the tawdry, half-drunke_reatures around him he would address, when a middle-aged man of respectabl_ppearance, dressed in black, issued from one of the surrounding dens.
“A city missionary,” thought George Aspel, as he approached, and asked fo_irection to the abode of a man named Abel Bones.
The missionary pointed out the entrance to the desired abode, and looked a_is questioner with a glance which arrested the youth’s attention.
“Excuse me, sir,” he said, “but the man you name has a very bad character.”
“Well, what then?” demanded Aspel sharply.
“Oh! nothing. I only meant to warn you, for he is a dangerous man.”
The missionary was a thin but muscular man, with stern black eyes and _owerful nose, which might have rendered his face harsh if it had not bee_ore than redeemed by a large firm mouth, round which played lines that tol_nmistakably of the milk of human kindness. He smiled as he spoke, and Aspe_as disarmed.
“Thank you,” he said; “I am well able to take care of myself.”
Evidently the missionary thought so too, for, with a quiet bow, he turned an_ent his way.
At the end of a remarkably dark passage George Aspel ran his head against _eam and his knee against a door with considerable violence.
“Come in,” said a very weak but sweet little voice, as though doors in tha_egion were usually rapped at in that fashion.
Lifting the latch and entering, Aspel found himself confronted by Tottie Bone_n her native home.
It was a very small, desolate, and dirty home, and barely rendered visible b_ thin “dip” stuck into an empty pint-bottle.
Tottie opened her large eyes wide with astonishment, then laid one of he_irty little fingers on her rosy lips and looked imploringly at her visitor.
Thus admonished, he spoke, without knowing why in a subdued voice.
“You are surprised to see me, Tottie?”
“I’m surprised at nothink, sir. ’Taint possible to surprise me with anythin_n _this_ life.”
“D’you expect to be surprised by anything in any other life, Tottie?” aske_spel, more amused by the air of the child than by her answer.
“P’r’aps. Don’t much know, and don’t much care,” said Tottie.
“Well, I’ve come to ask something,” said the youth, sitting down on a low bo_or the convenience of conversation, “and I hope, Tottie, that you’ll tell m_he truth. Here’s a half-crown for you. The truth, mind, whether you think i_ill please me or not; I don’t want to be pleased—I want the truth.”
“I’d tell you the truth without _that_ ,” said Tottie, eyeing the half-crow_hich Aspel still held between his fingers, “but hand it over. We want a goo_any o’ these things here, bein’ pretty hard up at times.”
She spun the piece deftly in the air, caught it cleverly, and put it in he_ocket.
“Well, tell me, now, did you post the letter I gave you the night I took te_ith Miss Lillycrop?”
“Yes, I did,” answered the child, with a nod of decision.
“You’re telling the truth?”
“Yes; as sure as death.”
Poor Tottie had made her strongest asseveration, but it did not convey t_spel nearly so much assurance as did the earnest gaze of her bright an_ruthful eyes.
“You put it in the pillar?” he continued.
“At the end of the street?”
“Yes, at the end of the street; and oh, you’ve no idea what an awful time _as about it; the slit was so high, an’ I come down sitch a cropper w’en i_as done!”
“But it went in all right?”
“Yes, all right.”
George Aspel sat for some moments in gloomy silence. He now felt convinced o_hat which at first he had only suspected—namely, that his intending patro_as offended because he had not at once called in person to thank him, instea_f doing so by letter. Probably, also, he had been hurt by the expressions i_he letter to which Philip Maylands had objected when it was read to him.
“Well, well,” he exclaimed, suddenly giving a severe slap to his unoffendin_high, “I’ll have nothing to do with him. If he’s so touchy—as that comes to, the less that he and I have to say to each other the better.”
“Oh! _please_ , sir, hush!” exclaimed Tottie, pointing with a look of alarm t_ bundle which lay in a dark corner, “you’ll wake ’im.”
“Father,” whispered the child.
The visitor rose, took up the pint-bottle, and by the aid of its flarin_andle beheld something that resembled a large man huddled together in a hea_n a straw mattress, as he had last fallen down. His position, together wit_is torn and disarranged garments, had destroyed all semblance to human for_ave where a great limb protruded. His visage was terribly disfigured by th_ffects of drink, besides being partly concealed by his matted hair.
“What a wretched spectacle!” exclaimed the young man, touching the heap wit_is foot as he turned away in disgust.
Just then a woman with a black eye entered the room with a black bottle in he_and. She was the woman who had refused the beer from Aspel.
“Mother,” said Tottie, running up to her, “here’s the gent who—”
“’Av-’ee-go’-th’-gin?” growled a deep voice from the dark corner.
“’Ave ’ee got th’ gin, I say, Molly?” roared the voice in rising wrath.
“Yes, yes, Abel, here it is,” exclaimed the woman, hastening towards th_orner.
The savage who lay there was so eager to obtain the bottle that he made _natch at it and let it slip on the stone floor, where it was broken t_ieces.
“O don’t, Abel dear, don’t! I’ll get another,” pleaded the poor woman; bu_bel’s disappointment was too great for endurance; he managed to rise, an_ade a wild blow at the woman,—missed her, and staggered into the middle o_he room. Here he encountered the stern glance of George Aspel. Being a dark, stern man himself, with a bulky powerful frame, he rather rejoiced in th_ight of a man who seemed a worthy foe.
“What d’ee wan’ here, you long-legged—hah! would you?” he added, on observin_spel’s face flush and his fists close, “Take that!”
He struck out at his adversary’s face with tremendous violence. Aspel parrie_he blow and returned it with such good-will that Abel Bones went headlon_nto the dark corner whence he had risen,—and lay there.
“I’m _very_ sorry,” said the instantly-repentant George, turning to Mrs Bones, “but I couldn’t help it; really, I—”
“There, there; go away, sir, and thank you kindly,” said the unfortunat_oman, urging—almost pushing—her visitor towards the door. “It’ll do ’im good, p’r’aps. He don’t get that every day, an’ it won’t ’urt ’im.”
Aspel found himself suddenly in the dark passage, and heard the door slammed.
His first impulse was to turn, dash in the door with his foot, and tak_engeance on Abel Bones, his next to burst into a sardonic laugh. Thereafte_e frowned fiercely, and strode away. In doing so he drew himself up with sea- king-like dignity and assaulted a beam, which all but crushed his hat over hi_yes. This did not improve his temper, but the beer had not yet robbed him o_ll self-control; he stooped to conquer and emerged into the street.
Well was it for George Aspel that his blow had been such an effective one, fo_f a riot with Bones had followed the blow, there were numerous kindre_pirits there who would have been only too glad to aid their chum, and th_ntruder would have fared badly among them, despite his physical powers. As i_as, he soon regained a respectable thoroughfare, and hastened away in th_irection of his lodgings.
But a dark frown clouded his brow, for as he went along his thoughts were bus_ith what he believed to be the insolent pride of Sir James Clubley. He als_hought of May Maylands, and the resolution with which she so firmly yet s_ently repelled him. The latter thought wounded his pride as well as hi_eelings deeply. While in this mood the spirit of the sea-kings arose withi_im once again. He entered a public-house and had another pot of beer. It wa_ery refreshing—remarkably so! True, the tall and stalwart young frame o_eorge Aspel needed no refreshment at the time, and he would have scorned th_nsinuation that he _required_ anything to support him—but—but—it wa_ecidedly refreshing! There could be no doubt whatever about that, and i_nduced him to take a more amiable view of men in general—of “poor Abel Bones” in particular. He even felt less savagely disposed towards Sir James, thoug_e by no means forgave him, but made up his mind finally to have nothing mor_o do with him, while as to May—hope told him flattering tales.
At this point in his walk he was attracted by one of those traps to catch th_nwary, which are so numerous in London—a music-hall. George knew not what i_as, and cared not. It was a place of public entertainment: that was enoug_or him. He wanted entertainment, and in he went.
It is not our purpose to describe this place. Enough is told when we have sai_hat there were dazzling lights and gorgeous scenes, and much music, and man_ther things to amuse. There were also many gentlemen, but—no ladies. Ther_as also much smoking and drinking.
Aspel soon observed that he was expected either to drink or smoke. He did no_ish to do either, but, disliking singularity, ordered a cigar and a glass o_randy-and-water. These were followed by another cigar and another glass.
Towards midnight he had reached that condition when drink stimulates th_esire for more drink. Being aware, from former experience, of the danger o_his condition, and being, as we have said, a man of some strength of will, h_ose to go.
At the moment a half-tipsy man at the little table next him carelessly flun_he end of his cigar away. It alighted, probably by accident, on the top o_spel’s head.
“Hallo, sir!” shouted the enraged youth, starting up and seizing the man b_is collar.
“Hallo, sir!” echoed the man, who had reached his pugnacious cups, “let go.”
He struck out at the same moment. Aspel would have parried the blow, but hi_rm had been seized by one of the bystanders, and it took effect on his nose, which instantly sent a red stream over his mouth and down the front of hi_hirt.
Good-humour and kindliness usually served Aspel in the place of principle.
Remove these qualities temporarily, and he became an unguarde_avage—sometimes a roaring lion.
With a shout that suspended the entertainments and drew the attention of th_hole house, he seized his adversary, lifted him in the air, and woul_nfallibly have dashed him on the floor if he had not been caught in the arm_f the crowd. As it was, the offender went down, carrying half-a-dozen friend_nd a couple of tables with their glasses along with him.
Aspel was prevented from doing more mischief by three powerful policemen, wh_eized him from behind and led him into the passage. There a noisy explanatio_ook place, which gave the offender time to cool and reflect on his madness.
On his talking quietly to the policemen, and readily paying for the damage h_ad done, he was allowed to go free. Descending the stair to the street, wher_he glare of the entrance-lamps fell full upon him, he felt a sudden sensatio_f faintness, caused by the combination of cold air, excitement, drink, an_moke. Seizing the railings with one hand, he stood for a moment with his eye_hut.
Re-opening them, and gazing stupidly before him, he encountered the horrifie_aze of May Maylands! She had been spending the evening with Miss Lillycrop, and was on her way home, escorted by Solomon Flint.
“Come along, Miss May,” said Solomon, “don’t be afraid of ’im. He can’t ’ur_ou—too far gone for that, bless you. Come on.”
May yielded, and was out of sight in a moment.
Filled with horror, despair, madness, and self-contempt, George Aspel stoo_olding on to the railings and glaring into vacuity. Recovering himself h_taggered home and went to bed.