“Hogwash!” said Cobbler, groping under his pillow for his piece of bedsheet. “Don’t come the noble sufferer over me, Bridgetower. You are in a richly varied mess, true enough. But, much as I like you, I am clear-eyed enough to see that it is the outward and visible reflection of the inward and invisible mess which is your soul. You think life has trapped you, do you? Well, my friend, everybody is trapped, more or less. The best thing you can hope for is to understand your trap and make terms with it, tooth by tooth. If this seems hard, reflect that I speak from what may well be my deathbed.” He blew his nose resoundingly. “B natural,” said he; “My cold drops more than a full tone every hour. Obviously I am dying. Well, accept these hard words as a parting gift. You are the prisoner of circumstance, Bridgetower, and it is my considered view that you are not one of the tiny minority of mankind that can grapple with circumstance and give it a fall.”
Solly pondered. “We’ll see about that,” he said, after a time, but his host and hostess were both asleep.
Much later Solly woke, and found that Molly Cobbler was kicking him, gently but persistently. “It’s time you went home, ducks,” said she. “It’s long after three.”
“Good God,” cried Solly, sitting up. “What’ll Mother say?”
“Tell her you were in bed with a married woman, and didn’t think it polite to hurry away,” said Molly. And then, surprisingly, she kissed him. “Don’t pay any attention to what Humphrey said; he was ill and cross. You’ll find a way out.”
Her kindness went right to Solly’s heart, and he felt a sudden warmth there.
“Thanks,” he said, and kissed her in return. “I know I will.” From force of habit he began to tiptoe down the stairs, then, recollecting where he was, he clumped noisily to the bottom, and thence out into the cool night. At least his mind was made up about one thing: he should have tried to protect Pearl from her father.
Gloster Ridley sat at his breakfast. From the kitchen came the voice of Mrs Edith Little, his housekeeper, raised in song. It was a high voice, wiry, small and tremulous, a carefully modulated snarl. When she had finished Just A-Wearyin’ For You she addressed her son Earl.
“Like that, lover?”
“Good? Aw, you’re a flatterer. Are you going to be a flatterer when you grow up?”
“You going to be a flatterer like Ugga Bev?”
“Aw, you’re crazy about Ugga Bev, aren’t you? Eh? You’re just crazy about him.”
“Well, you just grow up half as smooth as Ugga Bev and you’ll be all right. Ugga Bev is certainly a smoothie. You going to be a smoothie, lover?”
“You are? Say, you’re just too smart, that’s what you are. Just too smart for your old Mommie. But you’ll always be Mommie’s fella, won’t you?”
“Yes, sir. Mommie’ll always be your best girl, eh? Tell Mommie she’ll always be your best girl.”
“Aw, you’re a flatterer.”
Ridley sighed as he spooned up the last juice from his grapefruit. This was, he knew, a carefully staged scene, intended to impress him with the beauty of mother love, and the delightful cleverness of little Earl. He was not a vain man, and it had never occurred to him that his housekeeper sought to ensnare him with her charms, but he knew that she was, for some mysterious purpose, intent upon calling his attention to her son. She frequently told him stories of the child’s brilliance and whimsical humour, and she had once asked him if he had never longed for a child of his own? He was both too weak and too kind to tell her the truth, which was that he feared and mistrusted virtually all children, and he had temporized somehow. But when Christmas came, a few weeks later, he had bought a large and expensive toy panda for Earl, and after that Mrs Little had begun to bring the child to work with her occasionally, and to stage these dialogues within his hearing. And he had, though somewhat ashamed of the emotion, begun to hate Earl intently.
Was it ever permissible, he wondered, to describe a child as a slob? Surely slob was the only accurate word for little Earl. Though the child was not much more than three, he already had a hulking, stooping walk, his round abdomen suggested the prolapsed belly of middle age, and in the corner of his mouth was a damp hole, as though provided by nature for the soggy butt of a cigar. If ever a child were a slob, Earl was a slob. Not that he thought of him as Earl; he had some weeks ago christened the child Blubadub in the secret baptistery of his mind. The name had come out of the deep past, when, as a child, he had seen a picture in a bound volume of some English magazine (was it Punch?) of a pretty young mother talking with just such a surly brat: ‘And what does Mama call her darling?’ ‘Blub-a-dub,’ the brat replied. ‘That’s right,’ said Mama, ‘Beloved Dove!’ Blubadub, the son of Constant Reader.
Mrs Little brought him his egg and a rack of toast. “I hope I don’t bother you with my singing,” said she.
“Not at all,” said Ridley. It would have been true, but churlish, to say that he would prefer silence; bachelors pay a high price for any sort of female care.
“I’m a regular lark these days,” said Mrs Little, “singing all the time. I’m taking voice.”
“From the gentleman who boards at our place. Mr Bevill Higgin. He’s a wonderful teacher; he just seems to get it out of you, kind of. I often tell him he could get music out of anything. We’re all taking, me and my sister and her husband and even Earl.”
“The little boy too?”
“Oh yes. Mr Higgin says you can’t start a kiddy too young. He could sing himself before he could talk. Would you like to hear Earl?”
“Some day, yes.”
“Oh, but he’s right here. I sometimes bring him with me, while I’m working here mornings. He just sits as good as gold, while I’m working. I’ll bring him in.”
Ridley felt a wave of despondency sweep over him, as she hurried to the kitchen. I should be a happy man, thought he. The sun is shining on my breakfast table; I have a very nice apartment; my housekeeper is clean and capable. But I feel wretched, and now I shall have to listen to Blubadub sing. Well, I’m not going to let my egg get cold anyhow.
Mrs Little returned, leading Earl by the hand. The child was nicely dressed in a yellow jumper and brown corduroy overalls, but in Ridley’s eye he was a slob. He hulked, and in his dimple a ghostly cigar butt seemed to nestle.
“Now, lover,” said Mrs Little, kneeling, “sing for Mr Ridley. Just like you sing for Ugga Bev. That’s what he calls Mr Higgin. He means Uncle Bev, of course. Come on, lover — Jack and Jill went up the hill –”
“Taw down, bo cown,” mumbled Blubadub.
“Ah now, lover, you know that comes later,” said Mrs Little, playing the loving mother with many an arch glance toward her employer and quarry. “Come on, lover; Jack and Jill,” she prompted in her own tiny, wiry voice.
“He got baw head,” said Earl, fixing Ridley with a surly stare.
“Now, lover, that’s bold,” said Mrs Little, blushing very much. “You sing for nice Mr Ridley.”
“Not nice,” said Earl, and struck at the air in Ridley’s direction. “Stinky.Got baw head.”
Ridley saw no reason why he should help Mrs Little out of her difficulty, and went on eating his egg, after casting a malevolent look at Blubadub. The child well understood its meaning, and stamped and struck at the air again. Mrs Little thought that the time had come to show that she could be firm, as well as sweet, in the motherly role, so she took Earl’s fat fist in her hands and shook it mildly.
“Now, lover, Mommy wants you to sing for Mr Ridley just like you sing for Ugga Bev. Now, come on.”
“Ugga Bev bastard!” said Earl, with greater clarity than he had given to any previous speech. “Baw head bastard!”
With a smothered cry Mrs Little seized her child in her arms and fled to the kitchen.
Ridley was much cheered. He hoped that Earl was in serious trouble. He ate his egg with better appetite, and positively enjoyed his toast and coffee. After all, he thought, the day which lay before him might not be so painful as he feared. He had slept badly. The thought of a difficult day to come always gave him a restless night. But looking out of the window at the autumn sunshine it seemed that things might not be quite so laborious as he supposed. He must see Balmer this morning. He must see Mr Warboys, and in all likelihood his enemy Mrs Warboys, late in the afternoon. Well, it must be lived through, somehow.