On a summer afternoon two surly men sat together in a London lodging. One of them occupied an easy-chair, smoked a cigarette, and read the newspaper; the other was seated at the table, with a mass of papers before him, on which he laboured as though correcting exercises. They were much of an age, and that about thirty, but whereas the idler was well dressed, his companion had a seedy appearance and looked altogether like a man who neglected himself. For half an hour they had not spoken.
Of a sudden the man in the chair jumped up.
‘Well, I have to go into town,’ he said gruffly, ‘and it’s uncertain when I shall be back. Get that stuff cleared off, and reply to the urgent letters–mind you write in the proper tone to Dixon–as soapy as you can make it. Tell Miss Brewer we can’t reduce the fees, but that we’ll give her credit for a month. Guarantee the Leicestershire fellow a pass if he begins at once.’
The other, who listened, bit the end of his wooden penholder to splinters.
‘All right,’ he replied. ‘But, look here, I want a little money.’
‘So do I.’
‘Yes, but you’re not like me, without a coin in your pocket. Look here, give me half-a-crown. I have absolute need of it. Why, I can’t even get my hair cut. I’m sick of this slavery.’
‘Then go and do better,’ cried the well-dressed man insolently. ‘You were glad enough of the job when I offered it to you. It’s no good your looking to me for money. I can do no more myself than just live; and as soon as I see a chance, you may be sure I shall clear out of this rotten business.’
He moved towards the door, but before opening it stood hesitating.
‘Want to get your hair cut, do you? Well, there’s sixpence, and it’s all I can spare.’
The door closed. And the man at the table, leaning back, stared gloomily at the sixpenny piece on the table before him.
His name was Topham; he had a university degree and a damaged reputation. Six months ago, when his choice seemed to be between staying in the streets and turning sandwich-man, luck had made him acquainted with Mr. Rudolph Starkey, who wrote himself M.A. of Dublin University and advertised a system of tuition by correspondence. In return for mere board and lodging Topham became Mr. Starkey’s assistant; that is to say, he did by far the greater part of Mr. Starkey’s work. The tutorial business was but moderately successful; still, it kept its proprietor in cigarettes, and enabled him to pass some hours a day at a club, where he was convinced that before long some better chance in life would offer itself to him. Having always been a lazy dog, Starkey regarded himself as an example of industry unrewarded; being as selfish a fellow as one could meet, he reproached himself with the unworldliness of his nature, which had so hindered him in a basely material age. One of his ventures was a half-moral, half-practical little volume entitled Success in Life. Had it been either more moral or more practical, this book would probably have yielded him a modest income, for such works are dear to the British public; but Rudolph Starkey, M.A., was one of those men who do everything by halves and snarl over the ineffectual results.
Topham’s fault was that of a man who had followed his instincts but too thoroughly. They brought him to an end of everything, and, as Starkey said, he had been glad enough to take the employment which was offered without any inconvenient inquiries. The work which he undertook he did competently and honestly for some time without a grumble. Beginning with a certain gratitude to his employer, though without any liking, he soon grew to detest the man, and had much ado to keep up a show of decent civility in their intercourse. Of better birth and breeding than Starkey, he burned with resentment at the scant ceremony with which he was treated, and loathed the meanness which could exact so much toil for such poor remuneration. When offering his terms Starkey had talked in that bland way characteristic of him with strangers.