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Authors: Patricia Wentworth

Beggar’s Choice

BOOK: Beggar’s Choice
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Beggar's Choice

Patricia Wentworth

I

From Carthew Fairfax's diary:

September
14
th
1929—I suppose I've touched bottom to-day. I'm going to write about it because it's something to do, and because of the odd thing that happened. The more I think about it, the odder it seems, so I think I'll just write everything down whilst I can be sure I'm remembering and not imagining. They say you get to imagine things when you're alone a lot. Extraordinary to think that one used to come up to town to have a good time and see one's pals. Now it's not town any more; it's London—a grimy, gritty loneliness—and if I saw a pal, I'd make tracks in the opposite direction. I thrashed that out with myself when I dropped past the middle of the ladder and began going down, rung by rung, to the bottom. I suppose I haven't quite got there yet, but I must be pretty near it.

And now I'm going to write down what happened to-day.

I started out bright and early to answer an advertisement for a secretary. The extraordinary thing was that I really felt most awfully bucked. I suppose I'm hopeful by nature, because when I'm job-hunting I generally feel exhilarated and sure I'm going to get something this time. I remember feeling particularly hopeful just before I took on with that beast Craddock, and I only stayed a week, and left in a hurry because I was afraid I'd murder him if I didn't get out—and whatever the luck's like, I'd rather keep clear of the gallows, if it was only for Fay's sake.

Well, I started out and stayed hopeful until the bloke who interviewed me turned me down. He was a smug brute, with black bottle-brush eyebrows and indecently new clothes. He turned me down. I saw him look at my boots, and I went out boiling with rage. I suppose three years of losing cheap jobs and hunting cheaper ones ought to have broken me in—but I boiled. I wanted to round on him and say, “I don't write with my boots, fathead, and anyhow I'd eat them raw before I'd take your damned job!”

I was still boiling ten minutes later, though I'd begun to call myself a fool. I took a good look at my boots in the open daylight. It was a muggy day, with the sun struggling to get through the clouds and not quite bringing it off; but even without the sun to show them up, I'm bound to say those boots gave me a sick, discouraged sort of feeling; because when your boots go, it's all up with you as far as job-hunting's concerned. I knew the soles were pretty far gone. Soles don't matter so long as the uppers hold. Well, mine weren't going to hold much longer. I've always been hard on a left shoe, and I could feel the brute giving as I walked. It will be through by to-morrow.

I thought about that pretty soberly. To-morrow began to look like being a small private edition of the end of the world as far as I was concerned. I owe three weeks' rent, and three is Mrs. Bell's limit. It would be “pay or go”; and I certainly couldn't pay.

I turned the corner, and came face to face with Isobel Tarrant.

I don't think I've ever had such a shock. I'd got pretty far down amongst cheery visions of what was likely to happen if I didn't get a job in the next few hours. And then to see Isobel like that! I don't think I can explain how I felt, but Isobel hadn't any business to be within a thousand miles of the things I was thinking about. I felt as if I'd met her in some beastly slum, and as if it was my fault that she was there; and I felt as if I didn't care whether it was a slum or not, or how much she oughtn't to be there, so long as I was seeing her again. It's three years since I've seen Isobel—and I saw her this morning. What's the good of pretending? I'm not writing all this down because something rather odd happened afterwards; I'm writing because I want to write about Isobel—because I've been starving for her, and pretending to myself that I've forgotten.

Well, I saw her. I've forgotten her just as much as a man who's dying of thirst has forgotten water—he's forgotten what it tastes like, and he can't get it, and he's dying without it, and then some one shows it to him—shows him a pool with the sun on it and the water coming up in a clear spring. There was a pool like that at Linwood, and it always reminded me of Isobel. The trees stood round it so close that the water had the look of being extraordinarily deep. And first of all you'd think it was as still as glass, but if you watched, you'd see the spring of the water moving in it a long way down, and if you knew the right place, you could stand and see the sky in the water; and, once in a way when the sun was just right, you could look down, and down, and down. I used to think there was something hidden in the pool, and make up stories about it. And afterwards, when I met Isobel, I thought about the pool at once. I suppose at first it was her eyes—because they have the same look that very deep water has. And then I loved her so much that she reminded me of all the beautiful things I had ever seen. The Linwood pool is very beautiful.

I've got a long way from meeting Isobel. I came round the corner, and she was only about half a yard away. If there had been any earthly way of avoiding her, I'd have taken it—but there wasn't any way, so I took my hat off. And she said “Car!” and stopped dead and said “Car!” again. And before I knew what I was doing we were shaking hands. I don't see that I could have helped it—I couldn't have cut her dead. And when I wanted to take my hand away, she held on to it, and she said, “Oh,
Car
!”

I don't know what I said—I dare say I didn't say anything—I didn't want to say anything—I wanted to look at her. She had on a blue dress, and at first I thought she was pale—frightfully pale—and my heart gave a sort of jerk of pure funk because I was afraid she was ill. And then when she said “Oh,
Car
!” the color came into her face and she looked so beautiful that I could have gone down on my knees and kissed the ground she was walking on—I didn't, of course; I stood like a stockfish and looked at her. And then she said, “Oh, Car, where have you been?” and I came to my senses and got my hand away.

“Oh, all over the place,” I said.

“And what are you doing?”

“A job of work—when I can get one.”

She said, “Have you got one now?” She has such a soft voice. She was sorry for me. I don't mind as long as it doesn't hurt her. She didn't look at my boots, and at all the rest of my shabbiness, but of course she could see exactly where I'd come to, and her voice wasn't quite steady. She's got a soft heart as well as a soft voice.

I told myself just what sort of a cad I should be if I traded on it, and I laughed a little and said,

“I'm on the trail. Wish me good hunting!”

She ought to have taken my cue, wished me good luck, and let me go. Instead, she looked at me with a sort of heavenly hurt look in her eyes.

“Why did you disappear?” Her voice was so soft I could hardly hear what she said.

“My dear,” I said, “‘disappear' sounds like a detective story. I've merely been dull and respectable—a little work, a little play, and so on.”

“And no friends?” she asked. Then, before I could answer, “You
did
disappear. You didn't give your friends a chance. It wasn't fair.”

I'd more or less got hold of myself by this time, and this was something I'd got an answer for.

“Look here, Isobel, what do you mean by ‘not fair'?”

“You didn't give your friends a chance at all.”

“How could they have helped me? Lent me fivers until they began to say to each other, ‘I say, here's Car—I'm off!'?”

She made a little sharp sound as if I'd hurt her.

“No, of course I didn't mean that.”

“Perhaps you meant that I might have asked them to go round touting for a job for me—‘I say, you know, there's poor old Car—absolutely down and out—had to send in his papers because his father didn't leave him a sou—took on with Lymington and got let in for the great Lymington smash——'”

She stopped me.

“Car—don't!”

“Well, that's what they'd have had to say—isn't it? The Lymington smash takes a bit of living down, my dear. Lymington's secretary wasn't exactly in demand. One man told me that if I wasn't a knave, I must be about the biggest fool in the British Empire, and whichever I was, he hadn't any use for me.”

She made a sound without any words. I knew I'd hurt her, but I was feeling savage and I wanted to hurt. In a way, it brought her nearer. For three years she'd been as far away as if I'd been dead. It made me feel alive again when she showed that I'd hurt her.

“You see I wasn't a very marketable article,” I said. “Shorthand nil—typing nil—languages English public school—in fact, commercially speaking, a wash-out. You can't walk into a man's office and say, ‘I'm a decent shot, and fair to average at polo and racquets'”——I broke off with a laugh—“and that was about the best my best pal could have said for me. I can type now, and I grind out shorthand, but any bright lad from a secondary school has probably got me beat at both.”

“You didn't give any of us a chance,” she said. “I'm not talking about jobs—I'm talking about being friends. When I'm——” She hesitated, and then said, “
down
—I want my friends all the more.”

I looked at her for a moment because I couldn't help it. Then I was afraid to go on looking. There was such a beautiful eager kindness in her eyes, and I thought I saw her lip tremble. That was when I was afraid to go on looking.

“People soon get over wanting you when you're down in the world,” I said.

“That's pride,” said Isobel steadily.

I laughed again.

“No, my dear—experience. Do you remember Jimmy Buckley? No, you wouldn't—he was before your time. Well, it's a very instructive story. Jimmy went smash, and all Jimmy's pals rallied round, and pressed fivers into his hand, and hunted jobs for him. And when Jimmy didn't keep the jobs, they hunted more, but not quite so enthusiastically, and they stopped pressing fivers on him. And when they stopped, Jimmy started asking, and the last I heard of him was that he'd settled down to a permanent job of writing begging letters—very systematic and regular. He'd work through all his relations, and then get on to his pals—only by that time they weren't pals any more, and he was ‘that damned fellow Buckley,' or ‘Jimmy, poor devil.' And that's that. Jimmy, my dear, is an awful
WARNING
. See?”

BOOK: Beggar’s Choice
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