Again, in Henry’s department—for the office was cut into two halves, with about ten clerks in each, the partners having, of course, their own private offices, from which they might dart out at any moment—there was a certain little fussy chief clerk who was obviously a person of very mysterious importance. He was frequently away, evidently on missions of great moment, for always on his return he would be closeted immediately with one or other of the partners, who in turn seemed to consider him important too, and would sometimes treat him almost like one of themselves, actually condescending to laugh with him now and again over some joke, evidently as mysterious as all the rest. This Mr. Perkins seldom noticed the juniors in his department, though occasionally he would select one of them to accompany him on one of his missions to clients of the firm; and they would start off together, as you may see a plumber and his apprentice sometimes in the streets,—the proud master-plumber in front, and the little apprentice plumber behind, carrying the lead pipe and the iron smelting-pot.
Now, did Mr. Smith really take such a heart-interest in cesspools and wet-traps as he appeared to do? and did Mr. Perkins really think he mattered all that?
These were two of the earliest questions which Henry asked himself, and as time brought the answers to them, and kindred questions, there were unexpected elements of comfort for the heart of the boy, longing so desperately in that barren place for any hint of the human touch. One day Mr. Smith startled him by mentioning Dickens, and even Charles Lamb. It was a kindly recognition of Mesurier’s rumoured interest in literature. Henry looked at him in amazement. “Oh, you read then!” he exclaimed. Of anything so human as reading he had suspected no one in that office.
Then as to the great Mr. Perkins, the time came when he was to prove very human indeed. For, dying suddenly one day, his various work had to pass into other hands; and, bit by bit, it began to leak out that those missions had not been so industriously devoted to the interests of the firm, nor been so carefully executed, as had been imagined. For Mr. Perkins, it transpired, had been fond of his pleasures, could appreciate wine, and liked an occasional informal holiday. So, posthumously, he began to wear for Henry a faint halo of humanity.
Indeed, it did not take Henry many days to realise that, as grass will force its way even between the flag-stones in a prison-yard, no little humanity contrived to support its existence even in this dead place. By degrees, he realised that these apparently colourless and frigid figures about him had each their separate individuality, engaging or otherwise; that their interests were by no means centred on the dull pages before them; and that, for the most part, they were very much in a like case with himself. Although thus immured from the world of realities, they still maintained, in vigorous activity, many healthy outdoor interests, and were quite keen in their enthusiasm for, and remarkably instructed in, the latest developments of horse-racing, football, and prize-fighting. Likewise, they had retained an astonishingly fresh and unimpaired interest in women, and still enjoyed the simple earth-born pleasures of the glass and the pipe.