I CAME across Thomas and his wife twenty years ago, on Hampstead Heath. They were hungry and homeless, so the colonel’s wife and I gave them a fresh start. We rented a room, furnished it like a home, rigged them out with decent clothes, gave Thomas boots and windows to clean, with the promise of more work if he proved worthy, and composed ourselves to listen to the reproaches of our friends.
It was rash, I know. Thomas had helped a grocer, a butcher, a fishmonger, in his day; had been a laborer and a tramp; he and his wife were just out of hospital. But we longed to give them the fresh chance he implored; so we settled them in, and Mrs. Thomas encouraged him to work hard and keep her in comfort. I was brought up to speak ill of nobody, so I shall just say that Thomas is grateful and industrious, gentle-voiced and peaceable; and that, his wife was none of these things.
My method of proving his honesty was simple. I gave him a golden sovereign to change for me at the post office. I sat, sick with anxiety, saying to myself: ‘I’ve lost a sovereign, or found a friend.’ Back he came, proud and breathless. I did not count the change; I just smiled to my friend.
The late Dr. Richard Garnett, Keeper of Printed Books in the British Museum, lived in our street; and soon Thomas was brushing the Great Man’s boots. He came to me one day and said, —
‘Please’m, is the nyme o’ the gen’leman up the rowel Dr. Richard Garnett?’
‘Yes,’ I said.
‘ Well, please’m, Richard’s my nyme, bit there cawn’t never be more nor one Richard in this ‘ere street, an’ thet’s the gen’leman; so will ye call me Tummas?’
So Thomas he is.
Soon he became a personality. Everybody knew him; our little street was full of kindly people who employed Thomas. He was scared of the colonel, but adored his wife, the soldier and sailor sons who came and went, and the girls in the schoolroom. They all called him ‘Uncle’; the boys gave him smart socks and gay ties, and in return their bicycles shone.
Thomas has one peculiarity; all clothes fit him. He seems to shrink or swell to the desired size, and the larger the number of people whose old clothes he is wearing at one time, the prouder he is.
Soon we found that he had adopted us; he began to swagger about us. I first noticed it when I was seeing my professor husband off to lecture in America. Thomas came to Euston, too, and himself carried the two suitcases to the compartment. To an uninterested porter he explained: —
‘Mawster’s ‘eavy luggage all went orf yestidy.’
When the train had gone I said, —
‘What made you tell that porter an untruth, Thomas? You know quite well Master took no heavy luggage.’
‘Yus, ‘m, I do, bit I did n’t want that there porter ti think my Mawster wiz trevelin’ si light,’ said the unabashed Thomas.
One day my brother sent me a salmon of his own catching, from his own bit of river.
‘W’ere did thet come frum?’ he asked, poking it.
‘Mr. George caught it and sent it,’ said Cook.
Thomas sniffed. ‘Ye catches salmon, an’ then ye cats them.’ He jerked his head toward my professor’s study. ‘Ye writes books an’ then ye puts them in a row in the book-kyse. Books lawsts longer nor salmon.’
At last, his wife died. Thomas had cooked and cleaned and washed for years, and had put up, with dignity and silently, with much. He and I were the only mourners; we arrived at the cemetery literally hung around with wreaths and crosses of our joint manufacture, and I was clutching a stack of ‘honesty,’ which Thomas said was her ‘ fyverite ‘ shrub. When the coffin was lowered, he said very quietly, —
‘She’s out o’ ‘er pyne an’ mis’ry, an’ I’m out o’ mine.’
He saw me home, and I asked him to go to tea in the kitchen.
‘Naow, thenk ye,’ he replied; ‘I’m a-goin’ right ‘ome, ti put on a big fire, an’ set right in the very middle uv the ‘earth, an’ ‘ave a kipper ti me tea, an’ ‘ot towst an’ drippin’.’
It was an emancipated man who spoke.
Soon after, Thomas and I went to a wedding. It was the youngest of the colonel’s daughters, ‘Little Miss Catherine,’ as Thomas most inappropriately called her. It was bad enough to travel by bus with him, all covered with wreaths and honesty, and to have to put up with the amazed sympathy of my fellow passengers. But Catherine’s wedding-bus journey was worse. It was very hot, and Thomas was perspiring freely; he was very happy, and kept telling me who had given him every article of his clothes: check trousers, knitted waistcoat, frock coat, colored shirt, smart tie, army boots, and a bowler hat, far too small. He looked like a very low-class comedian.
‘Me bryces are me own,’ he said complacently. He had asked if he might wear a ‘ fyver,’ and I had not had the heart to discourage him. The favor was a huge bunch of red, white, and blue ribbons. It was the most painful journey of my life.
But everybody welcomed him; or, rather, as we had got to the church before the red carpet was down and the choir-boys had arrived, he welcomed everybody. The colonel was dead, and the family had moved to Kensington, so there were many handshakings. An admiral and the governor of one of our colonics were there, to see their young relative married, and they both remembered ‘Uncle.’ When the bride came, it was Thomas, bowler in hand, who opened her car door; Thomas spread her train; and Thomas managed to shut the car door on Catherine and her husband.
‘ ‘Ave n’t I ‘ad a lot o’ love showed me this dy?’ said our Thomas.
Thomas grows old, and is afraid he will get dizzy one day and be run over.
‘But they ‘ll know ‘oo I am,’ he told me.
I asked if he carried his name and address in his pocket.
‘Better nor thet,’ he answered; ‘look a ‘ere.’
He shewed me an old envelope, addressed to my husband, with any number of degrees after the name.
‘They’ll fetch me right ti you, or else tyke me ti the ‘orspital, an’ ring you up — an’ you’ll know it’s not Mawster, jist me.’
Our American friends have never seen anybody quite like Thomas. They listen, amazed, while I tell them of his care of us during the war years, of his love and devotion, — nothing is ever a trouble to him, — of his grief when the young ‘gen’lemen’ who came so much to the house were killed, one after another. They love to hear his account of the air-raids.
‘Missus said I wore n’t to be frightened, so I wore n’t. “Let ‘em drop,” I sez, “they carn’t drop on me; Missus sys they won’t.’”
‘Does he really clean your boots, and speak of “Mawster and Missus,” always?’ asked one friend.
‘Certainly,’ I said; ‘why not?’
‘Well, I’d like to buy that man, he’s so servile,’ he answered.