Part 3 out of 5
about! Do you know, Aldous--"
She paused. She was sitting on a stool beside him, her arm upon his knee.
"What do I know?" he said, his hand seeking hers.
"Well, I can't help feeling that that man might live and learn. He isn't
a mere obstructive block--like the rest."
"Then Fontenoy is not as shrewd as usual. They say he regards him as
their best recruit."
"Never mind. I rather wish you'd try to make friends with him."
Maxwell, however, helped himself to cake and made no response. On the two
or three occasions on which he had met George Tressady, he had been
conscious, if the truth were told, of a certain vague antipathy to the
"No," she said, "no--I don't think after all he's your sort. Suppose _I_
see what can be done!"
And she got up with her flashing smile--half love, half fun--and
crossed the room to summon her little boy, Hallin, for his evening
play. Maxwell looked after her, not heeding at all what she was saying,
heeding only herself, her voice, the atmosphere of charm and life she
carried with her.
Marcella Maxwell, however, had not been easily wooed by the man who now
filled all the horizon of her life. At the time when Aldous Raeburn, as
he then was--the grandson and heir of old Lord Maxwell--came across her
first she was a handsome, undeveloped girl, of a type not uncommon in our
modern world, belonging by birth to the country-squire class, and by the
chances of a few years of student life in London to the youth that takes
nothing on authority, and puts to fierce question whatever it finds
already on its path--Governments, Churches, the powers of family and
wealth--that takes, moreover, its social pity for the only standard, and
spends that pity only on one sort and type of existence. She accepted
Raeburn, then the best _parti_ in the county, without understanding or
loving him, simply that she might use his power and wealth for certain
social ends to which the crude philanthropy of her youth had pledged
itself. Naturally, they were no sooner engaged than Raeburn found himself
launched upon a long wrestle with the girl who had thus--in the
selfishness of her passionate idealist youth--opened her relation to him
with a deliberate affront to the heart offered her. The engagement had
stormy passages, and was for a time wholly broken off. Aldous was made
bitterly jealous, or miserably unhappy. Marcella left the old house in
the neighbourhood of the Maxwell property, where her lover had first seen
and courted her. She plunged into London life, and into nursing, that
common outlet for the woman at war with herself or society. She suffered
and struggled, and once or twice she came very near to throwing away all
her chances of happiness. But in the end, Maxwell tamed her; Maxwell
recovered her. The rise of love in the unruly, impetuous creature, when
the rise came, was like the sudden growth of some great forest flower. It
spread with transforming beauty over the whole nature, till at last the
girl who had once looked upon him as the mere tool of her own moral
ambitions threw herself upon Maxwell's heart with a self-abandoning
passion and penitence, which her developed powers and her adorable beauty
made a veritable intoxication.
And Maxwell was worthy that she should do this thing. When he and
Marcella first met, he was a man of thirty, very able, very reserved, and
often painfully diffident as to his own powers and future. He was the
only young representative of a famous stock, and had grown up from his
childhood under the shadow of great sorrows and heavy responsibilities.
The stuff of the poet and the thinker lay hidden behind his shy manners;
and he loved Marcella Boyce with all the delicacy, all the idealising
respect, that passion generates in natures so strong and so highly
tempered. At the same time, he had little buoyancy or gaiety; he had a
belief in his class, and a constitutional dislike of change, which were
always fighting in his mind with the energies of moral debate; and he
acquiesced very easily--perhaps indifferently--in many outward
conventions and prejudices.
The crisis through which Marcella put him developed and matured the man.
To the influences of love, moreover, were added the influences of
friendship--of such a friendship as our modern time but seldom rears to
perfection. In Raeburn's college days, a man of rare and delicate powers
had possessed himself of Raeburn's tenacious affection, and had
thenceforward played the leader to Raeburn's strength, physical and
moral, availing himself freely, wherever his own failed him, of the
powers and capacities of his friend. For he himself bore in him from his
youth up the seeds of physical failure and early death. It was partly the
marvellous struggle in him of soul with body that subdued to him the
homage of the stronger man. And it was clearly his influence that broke
up and fired Raeburn's slower and more distrustful temper, informing an
inbred Toryism, a natural passion for tradition, and the England of
tradition with that "repining restlessness" which is the best spur of
Hallin was a lecturer and an economist; a man who lived in the perception
of the great paradox that in our modern world political power has gone to
the workman, while yet socially and intellectually he remains little less
weak, or starved, or subject than before. When he died he left to Raeburn
a legacy of feelings and ideas, all largely concerned with this contrast
between the huge and growing "tyranny" of the working class and the
individual helplessness or bareness of the working man. And it was these
feelings and ideas which from the beginning made a link between Raeburn
and the young revolts and compassions of Marcella Boyce. They were at one
in their love of Edward Hallin; and after Hallin's death, in their sore
and tender wish to make his thoughts tell upon the English world.
* * * * *
The Maxwells had now been married some five years, years of almost
incredible happiness. The equal comradeship of marriage at its best and
finest, all the daily disciplines, the profound and painless lessons of
love, the covetous bliss of parentage, the constant anxieties of power
nobly understood, had harmonised the stormy nature of the woman, and had
transformed the somewhat pessimist and scrupulous character of the man.
Not that life with Marcella Maxwell was always easy. Now as ever she
remained on the moral side a creature of strain and effort, tormented by
ideals not to be realised, and eager to drive herself and others in a
breathless pursuit of them.
But if in some sort she seemed to be always dragging those that loved her
through the heart of a tempest, the tempest had such golden moments! No
wife had ever more capacity for all the delicacies and depths of passion
towards the man of her choice. All the anxieties she brought with her,
all the perplexities and difficulties she imposed, had never yet seemed
to Maxwell anything but divinely worth while. So far, indeed, he had
never even remotely allowed himself to put the question. Her faults were
her; and she was his light of life.
For some time after their marriage, which took place about a year after
his accession to the title and estates, they had lived at the stately
house in Brookshire belonging to the Maxwells, and Marcella had thrown
herself into the management of a large household and property with
characteristic energy and originality. She had tried new ways of choosing
and governing her servants; new ways of entertaining the poor, and of
making Maxwell Court the centre, not of one class, but of all. She ran up
a fair score of blunders, but not one of them was the blunder of meanness
or vulgarity. Her nature was inventive and poetic, and the rich
fulfilment that had overtaken her own personal desires did but sting her
eager passion to give and to serve.
Meanwhile the family house in town was sold, and what with the birth of
her son, and the multiplicity of the rural interests to which she had set
her hand, Marcella felt no need of London. But towards the end of the
second year she perceived--though he said little about it--that there was
in her husband's mind a strong and persistent drawing towards his former
political interests and associations. The late Lord Maxwell had sat in
several Conservative cabinets, and his grandson, after a distinguished
career in the House as a private member, had accepted a subordinate place
in the Government only a few months before his grandfather's death
transferred him to the Lords. After that event, a scrupulous conscience
had forced him to take landowning as a profession and an arduous one. The
Premier made him flattering advances, and his friends remonstrated, but
he had none the less relinquished office, and buried himself on his land.
Now, however, after some three years' hard and unremitting work, the
estate was in excellent condition; the "new ways" of the new owners had
been well started; and both Maxwell and Marcella had fitting lieutenants
who could be left in charge. Moreover, matters were being agitated at
the moment in politics which had special significance for the man's
idealist and reflective mind. His country friends and neighbours hardly
For it was merely a question of certain further measures of factory
reform. A group of labour leaders were pressing upon the public and the
Government a proposal to pass a special Factory Act for certain
districts and trades of East London. In spite of Commissions, in spite
of recent laws, "sweating," so it was urged, was as bad as ever--nay, in
certain localities and industries was more frightful and more oppressive
than ever. The waste of life and health involved in the great clothing
industries of East London, for instance, which had provoked law after
law, inquiry after inquiry, still went--so it was maintained--its
"Have courage!" cried the reformers. "Take, at last, the only effectual
step. Make it penal to practise certain trades in the houses of the
people--drive them all into factories of a certain size, where alone
these degraded industries can be humanised and controlled. Above all,
make up your mind to a legal working day for East London men as well as
East London women. Try the great experiment first of all in this
omnivorous, inarticulate London, this dustbin for the rubbish of all
nations. Here the problem is worst--here the victims are weakest and
most manageable. London will bear what would stir a riot in Birmingham or
Leeds. Make the experiment as partial and as tentative as you
please--give the Home Office power to extend or revoke it at will--but
The change proposed was itself of vast importance, and was, moreover, but
a prelude to things still more far-reaching. But, critical as it was,
Maxwell was prepared for it. During the later years of his friend
Hallin's life the two men had constantly discussed the industrial
consequences of democracy with unflagging eagerness and intelligence. To
both it seemed not only inevitable, but the object of the citizen's
dearest hopes, that the rule of the people should bring with it, in
ever-ascending degree, the ordering and moralising of the worker's toil.
Yet neither had the smallest belief that any of the great civilised
communities would ever see the State the sole landlord and the sole
capitalist; or that Collectivism as a system has, or deserves to have,
any serious prospects in the world. To both, possession--private and
personal possession--from the child's first toy, or the tiny garden where
it sows its passionately watched seeds, to the great business or the
great estate, is one of the first and chiefest elements of human
training, not to be escaped by human effort, or only at such a cost of
impoverishment and disaster that mankind would but take the
step--supposing it conceivable that it should take it--to retrace it
Maxwell's _heart_, however, was much less concerned with this belief,
tenaciously as he held it, than with its relative--the limitation of
private possession by the authority of the common conscience. That "we
are not our own" has not, indeed, been left to Lassalle or Marx to
discover. But if you could have moved this quiet Englishman to speak, he
would have said--his strong, brooding face all kindled and alive--that
the enormous industrial development of the past century has shown us the
forces at work in the evolution of human societies on a gigantic scale,
and by thus magnifying them has given us a new understanding of them. The
vast extension of the individual will and power which science has brought
to humanity during the last hundred years was always present to him as
food for a natural exultation--a kind of pledge of the boundless
prospects of the race. On the other hand the struggle of society brought
face to face with this huge increment of the individual power, forced to
deal with it for its own higher and mysterious ends, to moralise and
socialise it lest it should destroy itself and the State together; the
slow steps by which the modern community has succeeded in asserting
itself against the individual, in protecting the weak from his weakness,
the poor from his poverty, in defending the woman and child from the
fierce claims of capital, in forcing upon trade after trade the axiom
that no man may lawfully build his wealth upon the exhaustion and
degradation of his fellow--these things stirred in him the far deeper
enthusiasms of the moral nature. Nay more! Together with all the other
main facts which mark the long travail of man's ethical and social life,
they were among the only "evidences" of religion a critical mind allowed
itself--the most striking signs of something "greater than we know"
working among the dust and ugliness of our common day. Attack wealth as
wealth, possession as possession, and civilisation is undone. But bring
the force of the social conscience to bear as keenly and ardently as you
may, upon the separate activities of factory and household, farm and
office; and from the results you will only get a richer individual
freedom, one more illustration of the divinest law man serves--that he
must "die to live," must surrender to obtain.
Such at least was Maxwell's persuasion; though as a practical man he
admitted, of course, many limitations of time, occasion, and degree. And
long companionship with him had impressed the same faith also on
Marcella. With the natural conceit of the shrewd woman, she would
probably have maintained that her social creed came entirely of
mother-wit and her own exertions--her experiences in London, reading,
and the rest. In reality it was in her the pure birth of a pure passion.
She had learnt it while she was learning to love Aldous Raeburn; and it
need astonish no one that the more dependent all her various
philosophies of life had become on the mere personal influence and joy
of marriage, the more agile had she grown in all that concerned the mere
intellectual defence of them. She could argue better and think better;
but at bottom, if the truth were told, they were Maxwell's arguments and
So that when this particular agitation began, and he grew restless in his
silent way, she grew restless too. They took down the old worn
portfolios of Hallin's papers and letters, and looked through them, night
after night, as they sat alone together in the great library of the
Court. Both Marcella and Aldous could remember the writing of many of
these innumerable drafts of Acts, these endless memoranda on special
points, and must needs try, for love's sake, to forget the terrible
strain and effort with which a dying man had put them together. She was
led by them to think of the many workmen friends she had made during the
year of her nursing life; while he had remembrances of much personal work
and investigation of his own, undertaken during the time of his
under-secretaryship, to add to hers. Another Liberal government was
slipping to its fall--if a Conservative government came in, with a
possible opening in it for Aldous Maxwell, what then? Was the chance to
One May twilight, just before dinner, as the two were strolling up and
down the great terrace just in front of the Court, Aldous paused and
looked at the majestic house beside them.
"What's the good of talking about these things while we live _there_?" he
said, with a gesture towards the house, half impatient, half humorous.
Marcella laughed. Then she sprang away from him, considering, a sudden
brightness in her eye. She had an idea.
The idea after all was a very simple one. But the probability is that,
had she not been there to carry him through, Maxwell would have neither
found it nor followed it. However that may be, in a very few days she had
clothed it with fact, and made so real a thing of it that she was amazed
at her own success. She and Maxwell had settled themselves in a small
furnished house in the Mile End Road, and Maxwell was once more studying
the problems of his measure that was to be in the midst of the
populations to whom it applied. The house had been recently let in
"apartments" by a young tradesman and his wife, well known to Marcella.
In his artisan days the man had been her friend, and for a time her
patient. She knew how to put her hand on him at once.
They spent five months in the little house, while the London that knew
them in St. James's Square looked on, and made the comments--half amused,
half inquisitive--that the act seemed to invite. There was of course no
surprise. Nothing surprises the London of to-day. Or if there were any,
it was all Marcella's. In spite of her passionate sympathy with the
multitude who live in disagreeable homes on about a pound a week, she
herself was very sensitive to the neighbourhood of beautiful things, to
the charm of old homes, cool woods, green lawns, and the rise and fall of
Brookshire hills. Against her wish, she had thought of sacrifice in
thinking of the Mile End Road in August.
But there was no sacrifice. Frankly, these five months were among the
happiest of her life. She and Maxwell were constantly together, from
morning till night, doing the things that were congenial to them, and
seeing the things that interested them. They went in and out of every
factory and workshop in which certain trades were practised, within a
three-mile radius; they became the intimate friends of every factory
inspector and every trade-union official in the place. Luckily, Maxwell's
shyness--at least in Mile End--was not of the sort that can be readily
mistaken for a haughty mind. He was always ready to be informed; his
diffident kindness asked to be set at ease; while in any real ardour of
debate his trained capacity and his stores of knowledge would put even
the expert on his mettle.
As for Marcella, it was her idiosyncrasy that these tailors, furriers,
machinists, shirtmakers, by whom she was surrounded in East London,
stirred her imagination far more readily than the dwellers in great
houses and the wearers of fine raiment had ever stirred it. And
Marcella, in the kindled sympathetic state, was always delightful to
herself and others. She revelled in the little house and its ugly,
druggetted rooms; in the absence of all the usual paraphernalia of their
life; in her undisturbed possession of the husband who was at once her
lover and the best company she knew or could desire. On the few days
when he left her for the day on some errand in which she could not
share, to meet him at the train in the evening like any small clerk's
wife, to help him carry the books and papers with which he was generally
laden along the hot and dingy street, to make him tea from her little
spirit kettle, and then to hear the news of the day in the shade of the
little smutty back-garden, while the German charwoman who cooked for
them had her way with the dinner--there was not an incident in the whole
trivial procession that did not amuse and delight her. She renewed her
youth; she escaped from the burdensome "glories of our birth, and
state"; from that teasing "duty to our equals" on which only the wisest
preachers have ever laid sufficient stress; and her one trouble was that
the little masquerade must end.
One other drawback indeed, one more blight upon a golden time, there was.
Not even Marcella could make up her mind to transplant little Hallin, her
only child, from Maxwell Court to East London. It was springtime, and the
woods about the Court were breaking into sheets of white and blue.
Marcella must needs leave the boy to his flowers and his "grandame
earth," sadly warned thereto by the cheeks of other little boys in and
about the Mile End Road. But every Friday night she and Maxwell said
good-bye to the two little workhouse girls, and the German charwoman, and
the village boy from Mellor, who supplied them with all the service they
wanted in Mile End, took with them the ancient maid who had been
Marcella's mother's maid, and fled home to Brookshire. So on Saturday
mornings it generally happened that little Hallin went out to inform his
particular friend among the garden boys, that "Mummy had tum ome," and
that he was not therefore so much his own master as usual. He explained
that he had to show mummy "_eaps_ of things"--the two new kittens, the
"edge-sparrer's nest," and the "ump they'd made in the churchyard over
old Tom Collins from the parish ouses," the sore place on the pony's
shoulder, the "ole that mummy's orse had kicked in the stable door," and
a host of other curiosities. By way of linking the child with the soil
and its people, Marcella had taken care to give him nursemaids from the
village. And the village being only some thirty miles from London, talked
in the main the language of London, a language which it soon communicated
to the tongue of Maxwell's heir. Marcella tried to school her boy in
vain. Hallin chattered, laughed, broadened his a's and dropped all his
h's into a bottomless limbo none the less.
What days of joy those Saturdays were for mother and child! All the
morning and till about four o'clock, he and she would be inseparable,
trailing about together over field and wood, she one of the handsomest
of women, he one of the plainest of children--a little square-faced
chubby fellow, with eyes monstrously black and big, fat cheeks that
hung a little over the firm chin, a sallow complexion, and a large
But in the late afternoon, alas! Hallin was apt to find the world grow
tiresome. For against all his advice "mummy" would allow herself to be
clad by Annette, the maid, in a frock of state; carriages would drive up
from the 5.10 train; and presently in the lengthening evening the great
lawns of the Court would be dotted with strolling groups, or the red
drawing-room, with its Romneys and Gainsboroughs, would be filled with
talk and laughter circling round mummy at the tea-table; so that all that
was left to Hallin was that seat on mummy's knee--his big, dark head
pressed disconsolately against her breast, his thumb in his mouth for
comfort--which no boy of any spirit would ever consent to occupy, so long
as there was any chance of goading a slack companion into things better
Marcella herself was no less rebellious at heart, and would have asked
nothing better than to be left free to spend her weekly holiday in
roaming an April world with Hallin. But our country being what it is, the
plans that are made in Mile End or Shoreditch have to be adopted by
Mayfair or Mayfair's equivalent; otherwise they are apt to find an
inglorious tomb in the portfolios that bred them. We have still, it
seems, a "ruling class"; and in spite of democracy it is still this
"ruling class" that matters. Maxwell was perfectly aware of it; and these
Sundays to him were the mere complements of the Mile End weekdays.
Marcella ruefully admitted that English life was so, and she did her
best. But on Monday mornings she was generally left protesting in her
inmost soul against half the women whom these peers and politicians,
these administrators and journalists, brought with them, or wondering
anxiously whether her particular share in the social effort just over
might not have done Aldous more harm than good. She understood vaguely,
without vanity, that she was a power in this English society, that she
had many warm friends, especially among men of the finer and abler sort.
But when a woman loved her, and insisted, as it were, on making her know
it--and, after all, the experience was not a rare one--Marcella received
the overture with a kind of grateful surprise. She was accustomed,
without knowing why, to feel herself ill at ease with certain types of
women; even in her own house she was often aware of being furtively
watched by hostile eyes; or she found herself suddenly the goal of some
sharp little pleasantry that pricked like a stiletto. She supposed that
she was often forgetful and indiscreet. Perhaps the large court she held
so easily on these occasions beneath the trees or in the great
drawing-rooms of the old house had more to do with the matter. If so, she
never guessed the riddle. In society she was conscious of one aim, and
one aim only. Its very simplicity made other women incredulous, while it
kept herself in the dark.
However, by dint of great pains, she had not yet done Aldous any harm
that counted. During all the time of their East End sojourn, a Liberal
government, embarrassed by large schemes it had not force enough to
carry, was sinking towards inevitable collapse. When the crash came, a
weak Conservative government, in which Aldous Maxwell occupied a
prominent post, accepted office for a time without a dissolution. They
came in on a cry of "industrial reform," and, by way of testing their own
party and the country, adopted the Factory Bill for East London, which
had now, by the common consent of all the workers upon it, passed into
Maxwell's hands. The Bill rent the party in twain; but the Ministry had
the courage to go to the country with a programme in which the Maxwell
Bill held a prominent place. Trade-unionism rallied to their support; the
forces both of reaction and of progress fought for them, in strangely
mingled ways; and they were returned with a sufficient, though not large,
majority. Lord Ardagh, the veteran leader of the party, became Premier.
Maxwell was made President of the Council, while his old friend and
associate, Henry Dowson, became Home Secretary, and thereby responsible
for the conduct of the long-expected Bill through the Commons.
When Maxwell came back to her on the afternoon of his decisive interview
with Lord Ardagh, she was waiting for him in that same inner room where
Tressady paid his first visit. At the sound of her husband's step
outside, she sprang up, and they met half-way, her hands clasped in his,
against his breast, her face looking up at him.
"Dear wife! at last we have our chance--our real chance," he said to her.
She clung to him, and there was a moment of high emotion, in which
thoughts of the past and of the dead mingled with the natural ambition of
two people in the prime of life and power. Then Maxwell laughed and drew
a long breath.
"The eggs have been all put into my basket in the most generous manner.
We stand or fall by the Bill. But it will be a hard fight."
And, in his acute, deliberate way, he began to sum up the forces against
him--to speculate on the action of this group and that--Fontenoy's group
first and foremost.
Marcella listened, her beautiful hand pensive against her cheek, her
eyes on his. Half trembling, she realised what failure, if after all
failure should come, would mean to him. Something infinitely tender and
maternal spoke in her, pledging her to the utmost help that love and a
woman could give.
* * * * *
Such for Maxwell and his wife had been the antecedents of a
And now the session was here--was in full stream, indeed, rushing
towards the main battle still to come. On the second night of Fontenoy's
debate, George Tressady duly caught the Speaker's eye, and made a very
fair maiden speech, which earned him a good deal more praise, both from
his party and the press, than he--in a disgusted mood--thought at all
reasonable. He had misplaced half his notes, and, in his own opinion,
made a mess of his main argument. He remarked to Fontenoy afterwards that
he had better hang himself, and stalked home after the division pleased
with one thing only--that he had not allowed Letty to come.
In reality he had done nothing to mar the reputation that was beginning
to attach to him. Fontenoy was content; and the scantiness of the
majority by which the Resolution was defeated served at once to make the
prospects of the Maxwell Bill, which was to be brought in after Easter,
more doubtful, and to sharpen the temper of its foes.
"Goodness!--what an ugly place it is! It wants five thousand spent on it
at once to make it tolerable!"
The remark was Letty Tressady's. She was standing disconsolate on the
lawn at Ferth, scanning the old-fashioned house to which George had
brought her just five days before. They had been married a fortnight, and
were still to spend another week in the country before going back to
London and to Parliament. But already Letty had made up her mind that
Ferth _must_ be rebuilt and refurnished, or she could never endure it.
She threw herself down on a garden seat with a sigh, still studying the
house. It was a straight barrack-like building, very high for its
breadth, erected early in the last century by an architect who, finding
that he was to be allowed but a very scanty sum for his performance,
determined with considerable strength of mind to spend all that he had
for decoration upon the inside rather than the outside of his mansion.
Accordingly the inside had charm--though even so much Letty could not now
be got to confess; panellings, mantelpieces, and doorways showed the work
of a man of taste. But outside all that had been aimed at was the
provision of a central block of building carried up to a considerable
height so as to give the rooms demanded, while it economised in
foundations and general space; an outer wall pierced with the plainest
openings possible at regular intervals; a high-pitched roof to keep out
the rain, whereof the original warm tiles had been long since replaced by
the chilliest Welsh slates; and two low and disfiguring wings which held
the servants and the kitchens. The stucco with which the house had been
originally covered had blackened under the influence of time, weather,
and the smoke from the Tressady coalpits. Altogether, what with its
pitchy colour, its mean windows, its factory-like plainness and height,
Ferth Place had no doubt a cheerless and repellent air, which was
increased by its immediate surroundings. For it stood on the very summit
of a high hill, whereon the trees were few and windbeaten; while the
carriage drives and the paths that climbed the hill were all of them a
coaly black. The flower garden behind the house was small and neglected;
neither shrubberies nor kitchen garden, nor the small park, had any
character or stateliness; everything bore the stamp of bygone possessors
who had been rich neither in money nor in fancy; who had been quite
content to live small lives in a small way.
Ferth's new mistress thought bitterly of them, as she sat looking at
their handiwork. What could be done with such a place? How could she have
London people to stay there? Why, their very maids would strike! And,
pray, what was a country house worth, without the usual country-house
amenities and accessories?
Yet she already began to feel fretted and hampered about money. The
inside of the house had been to some extent renovated. She had helped
George to choose papers and curtains for the rooms that were to be her
special domain, while they were in London together before Easter. But she
knew that George had at one time meant to do much more than had actually
been done; and he had been in a mood of lover-like apology on the first
day of their arrival. "Darling, I had hoped to buy you a hundred pretty
things!--but times is bad--dreadful bad!" he had said to her with a
laugh. "We will do it by degrees--you won't mind?"
Then she had tried to make him tell her why it was that he had abandoned
some of the schemes of improvement that had certainly been in his mind
during the first weeks of their engagement. But he had not been very
communicative, and had put the blame mostly, as she understood him, on
the "beastly pits" and the very low dividends they had been earning
during the past six months.
Letty, however, did not in the least believe that the comparatively
pinched state of their finances, which, bride as she was, she was already
brooding over, was wholly or even mainly due to the pits. She set her
little white teeth in sudden anger as she said to herself that it was
_not_ the pits--it was Lady Tressady! George was crippled now because of
the large sums his mother had not been ashamed to wring from him during
the last six months. Letty--George's wife--was to go without comforts and
conveniences, without the means of seeing her friends and taking her
proper position in the world, because George's mother--a ridiculous,
painted old woman, who went in for flirtations and French gowns, when she
ought to be subsiding quietly into caps and Bath chairs--would sponge
upon his very moderate income, and take what did not belong to her.
"I am _certain_ there is something in the background!" said Letty to
herself, as she sat looking at the ugly house--"something that she is
ashamed of, and that she doesn't tell George. She _couldn't_ spend all
that money on dress! I believe she is a wicked old woman--she has the
most extraordinary creatures at her parties."
The girl's delicate face stiffened vindictively as she fell brooding for
the hundredth time over Lady Tressady's enormities.
Then suddenly the garden door opened, and Letty, looking up, saw that
George was on the threshold, waving his hand to her. He had left her that
morning--almost for the first time since their marriage--to go and see
his principal agent and discuss the position of affairs.
As he approached her, she noticed instantly that he was looking tired and
ruffled. But the sight of her smoothed his brow. He threw himself down on
the grass at her feet, and pressed his lips to the delicately tended hand
that lay upon her lap.
"Have you missed me, madame?" he said, peremptorily.
Preoccupied as she was, Letty must needs flush and smile, so well she
knew from his eager eye that she pleased him, that he noticed the pretty
gown she had put on for luncheon, and that all the petting his absence
had withdrawn from her for an hour or two had come back to her. Other
women--more or less of her type--had found his ways beguiling before
now. He took courtship as an art, and had his own rooted ideas as to how
women should be treated. Neither too gingerly nor too sentimentally--but,
above all, with variety!
He repeated his question insistently; whereupon Letty said, with her pert
brightness, thinking all the time of the house, "I'm _not_ going to make
you vain. Besides, I have been frightfully busy."
"You're not going to make me vain? But I choose to be vain. I'll go away
for the whole afternoon if I'm not made vain this instant. Ah! that's
better. Do you know that you have the softest little curl on your soft
little neck, and that your hair has caught the sun on it this morning?"
Letty instinctively put up a hand to tuck away the curl. But he seized
the hand. "Little vandal!--What have you been busy with?"
"Oh! I have been over the house with Mrs. Matthews," said Letty, in
another tone. "George, it's _dreadful_--the number of things that want
doing. Do you know, _positively_, we could not put up more than two
couples, if we tried ever so. And as for the state of the attics! Now do
And, holding his hand tight in her eagerness, she went through a vehement
catalogue of all that was wanted--new furniture, new decoration, new
grates, a new hot-water system, the raising of the wings, and so on to
the alteration of the stables and the replanning of the garden. She had
no sooner begun upon her list than George's look of worry returned. He
got up from the grass, and sat on the bench beside her.
"Well, I'm sorry you dislike the place so much," he said, when her breath
failed her, staring rather gloomily at his despised mansion. "Of course,
it's quite true--it is an ugly hole. But the worst of it is, darling, I
don't quite see how we're to do all this you talk about. I don't bring
any good news from the pits, alas!"
He turned quickly towards her. The thought flashed through his
mind--could he be justly charged with having married her on false
pretences as to his affairs? No! There had been no misrepresentation of
his income or his risks. Everything had been plainly and honestly stated
to her father, and therefore to her. For Letty knew all that she wanted
to know, and had managed her family since she was a baby.
Letty flushed at his last words.
"Do you mean to say," she said with emphasis, "that those men are really
going to strike?"
"I am afraid so. We _must_ enforce a reduction, to avoid working at sheer
loss, and the men vow they'll come out."
"They want you to make them a present of the mines, I suppose!" said
Letty, bitterly. "Why, the tales I hear of their extravagance and
laziness! Mrs. Matthews says they'll have none but the best cuts of meat,
that they all of them have an harmonium or a piano in the house, that
their houses are _stuffed_ with furniture--and the amount of money they
spend in betting on their dogs and their football matches is perfectly
sickening. And now, I suppose they'll ruin themselves and us, rather than
allow you to make a decent profit!"
"That's about it," said George, flinging himself back on the bench.
"That's about it."
There was a pause of silence. The eyes of both were turned to the
colliery village far below, at the foot of the hill. From this high
stretch of garden one looked across the valley and its straggling line of
houses, to the pits on the further hillside, the straight black line of
the "bank," the pulley wheels, and tall chimneys against the sky. To the
left, along the ascending valley, similar chimneys and "banks" were
scattered at long intervals, while to the right the valley dipped in
sharp wooded undulations to a blue plain bounded by far Welsh hills. The
immediate neighbourhood of Ferth, for a coal country, had a woodland
charm and wildness which often surprised a stranger. There were untouched
copses, and little rivers and fern-covered hills, which still held their
own against the ever-encroaching mounds of "spoil" thrown out by the
mines. Only the villages were invariably ugly. They were the modern
creations of the coal, and had therefore no history and no originality.
Their monotonous rows of red cottages were like fragments from some dingy
town suburb, and the brick meeting-houses in which they abounded did
nothing to abate the general unloveliness.
This view from the Ferth hill was one which had great familiarity for
Tressady, and yet no charm. As a boy he had had no love for his home and
very few acquaintances in the village. His mother hated the place and the
people. She had married very young--for the sake of money and
position--to his dull old father, who nevertheless managed to keep his
flighty wife in order by dint of a dumb, continuous stubbornness and
tyranny, which would have overborne a stronger nature than Lady
Tressady's. She was always struggling to get away from Ferth; he to keep
her tied there. He was never at ease away from his estate and his pits;
she felt herself ten years younger as soon as she had lost sight of the
grim black house on its hilltop.
And this one opinion of hers she was able to impress upon her
son--George, too, was always glad to turn his back on Ferth and its
people. The colliers seemed to him a brutal crew, given over to coarse
sports, coarse pleasures, and an odious religion. As to their supposed
grievances and hardships, his intimate conviction as a boy had always
been that the miner got the utmost both out of his employers and out of
society that he was worth.
"Upon my word, I often think," he said at last, his inward reverie
finding speech, "I often think it was a great pity my grandfather
discovered the coal at all! In the long run I believe we should have done
better without it. We should not at any rate have been bound up with
these hordes, with whom you can no more reason than with so many blocks
of their own coal!"
Letty made no answer. She had turned back towards the house. Suddenly
she said, with an energy that startled him,
"George, what _are_ we to do with that place? It gives me a nightmare.
The extraordinary thing is the way that everything in it has gone to
ruin. Did your mother really live here while you were away?"
George's expression darkened.
"I always used to suppose she was here," he said. "That was our bargain.
But I begin to believe now that she was mostly in London. One can't
wonder at it--she always hated the place."
"Of course she was in London!" thought Letty to herself, "spending piles
of money, running shamefully into debt, and letting the house go to
pieces. Why, the linen hasn't been darned for years!"
Aloud she said:
"Mrs. Matthews says a charwoman and a little girl from the village used
to be left alone in the house for months, to play any sort of games, with
nobody to look after them--_nobody_--while you were away!"
George looked at his wife--and then would only slip his arm round her
"Darling! you don't know how I've been worried all the morning--don't
let's make worry at home. After all it _is_ rather nice to be here
together, isn't it?--and we shall do--we sha'n't starve! Perhaps we shall
pull through with the pits after all--it is difficult to believe the men
will make such fools of themselves--and--well! you know my angel mother
can't always be swooping upon us as she has done lately. Let's just be
patient a little--very likely I can sell a few bits of land before long
that will give us some money in hand--and then this small person shall
bedizen herself and the house as much as she pleases. And meanwhile,
_madame ma femme_, let me point out to you that your George never
professed to be anything but a very bad match for you!"
Letty remembered all his facts and figures perfectly. Only somehow she
had regarded them with the optimism natural to a girl who is determined
to be married. She had promptly forgotten the adverse chances he had
insisted upon, and she had converted all his averages into minima. No,
she could not say she had not been warned; but nevertheless the result
promised to be quite different from what she had expected.
However, with her husband's arm round her, it was not easy to maintain
her ill-humour, and she yielded. They wandered on into the wood which
fringed the hill on its further side, she coquetting, he courting and
flattering her in a hundred ways. Her soft new dress, her dainty
lightness and freshness, made harmony in his senses with the April day,
the building rooks, the breaths of sudden perfume from field and wood,
the delicate green that was creeping over the copses, softening all the
edges of the black scars left by the pits. The bridal illusion returned.
George eagerly--hungrily--gave himself up to it. And Letty, though
conscious all the while of a restless feeling at the back of her mind
that they were losing time, must needs submit.
However, when the luncheon gong had sounded and they were strolling
back to the house, he bethought himself, knit his brows again, and
said to her:
"Do you know, darling, Dalling told me this morning"--Dalling was the
Tressadys' principal agent--"that he thought it would be a good thing if
we could make friends with some of the people here? The Union are not--or
_were_ not--quite so strong in this valley as they are in some other
parts. That's why that fellow Burrows--confound him!--has come to live
here of late. It might be possible to make some of the more intelligent
fellows hear reason. My uncles have always managed the thing with a very
high hand--very natural!--the men _are_ a set of rough, ungrateful
brutes, who talk impossible stuff, and never remember anything that's
done for them--but after all, if one has to make a living out of them,
one may as well learn how to drive them, and what they want to be at.
Suppose you come and show yourself in the village this afternoon?"
Letty looked extremely doubtful.
"I really don't get on very well with poor people, George. It's very
dreadful, I know, but there!--I'm not Lady Maxwell--and I can't help it.
Of course, with the poor people at home in our own cottages it's
different--they always curtsy and are very respectful--but Mrs. Matthews
says the people here are so independent, and think nothing of being rude
to you if they don't like you."
"Go and call upon them in that dress and see! I'll eat my hat if
anybody's rude. Beside, I shall be there to protect you. We won't go, of
course, to any of the strong Union people. But there are two or
three--an old nurse of mine I really used to be rather fond of--and a
fireman that's a good sort--and one or two others. I believe it would
Letty was quite certain that it would not amuse her at all. However, she
assented unwillingly, and they went in to lunch.
* * * * *
So in the afternoon the husband and wife sallied forth. Letty felt that
she was being taken through an ordeal, and that George was rather foolish
to wish it. However, she did her best to be cheerful, and to please
George she still wore the pretty Paris frock of the morning, though it
seemed to her absurd to be trailing it through a village street with only
colliers and their wives to look at it.
"What ill luck," said George, suddenly, as they descended their own hill,
"that that fellow Burrows should have settled down here, in one's very
pocket, like this!"
"Yes, you had enough of him at Malford, didn't you?" said Letty. "I don't
yet understand how he comes to be here."
George explained that about the preceding Christmas there had been,
temporarily, strong signs of decline in the Union strength of the Perth
district. A great many miners had quietly seceded; one of the periodical
waves of suspicion as to funds and management to which all trade unions
are liable had swept over the neighbourhood; and wholesale desertion from
the Union standard seemed likely. In hot haste the Central Committee
sent down Burrows as organising agent. The good fight he had made against
Tressady at the Market Malford election had given him prestige; and he
had both presence and speaking power. He had been four months at Perth,
speaking all over the district, and now, instead of leaving the Union,
the men had been crowding into it, and were just as hot--so it was
said--for a trial of strength with the masters as their comrades in other
parts of the county.
"And before Burrows has done with us, I should say he'll have cost the
masters in this district hundreds of thousands. I call him dear at the
money!" said George, finally, with a dismal cheerfulness.
He was really full of Burrows, and of the general news of the district
which his agent had been that morning pouring into his ear. But he had
done his best not to talk about either at luncheon. Letty had a curious
way of making the bearer of unpleasant tidings feel that it was somehow
all his own fault that things should be so; and George, even in this dawn
of marriage, was beginning, half consciously, to recognise two or three
such peculiarities of hers.
"What I cannot understand," said Letty, vigorously, "is why such people
as Mr. Burrows are _allowed_ to go about making the mischief he does."
George laughed, but nevertheless repressed a sudden feeling of
irritation. The inept remark of a pretty woman generally only amused him.
But this Burrows matter was beginning to touch him home.
"You see we happen to be a free country," he said drily, "and Burrows and
his like happen to be running us just now. Maxwell & Co. are in the
shafts. Burrows sits up aloft and whips on the team. The extraordinary
thing is that nothing personal makes any difference. The people here know
perfectly well that Burrows drinks--that the woman he lives with is not
"George!" cried Letty, "how _can_ you say such dreadful things!"
"Sorry, my darling! but the world is not a nice place. He picked her up
somehow--they say she was a commercial traveller's wife--left on his
hands at a country inn. Anyway she's not divorced, and the husband's
alive. She looks like a walking skeleton, and is probably going to die.
Nevertheless they say Burrows adores her. And as for my
resentments--don't be shocked--I'm inclined to like Burrows all the
better for _that_ little affair. But then I'm not pious, like the people
here. However, they don't mind--and they don't mind the drink--and they
believe he spends their money on magnificent dinners at hotels--and they
don't mind that. They don't mind anything--they shout themselves hoarse
whenever Burrows speaks--they're as proud as Punch if he shakes hands
with them--and then they tell the most gruesome tales of him behind his
back, and like him all the better, apparently, for being a scoundrel.
Queer but true. Well, here we are--now, darling, you may expect to be
For they had entered on the village street, and Ferth Magna, by some
quick freemasonry, had become suddenly conscious of the bride and
bridegroom. Here and there a begrimed man in his shirt-sleeves would
open his front door cautiously and look at them; the children and
womenkind stood boldly on the doorsteps and stared; while the people in
the little shops ran back into the street, parcels and baskets in hand.
The men working the morning shift had just come back from the pits, and
their wives were preparing to wash their blackened lords, before the
whole family sat down to tea. But both tea and ablutions were forgotten,
so long as the owner of Ferth Place and the new Lady Tressady were in
sight. The village eyes took note of everything; of the young man's
immaculate serge suit and tan waistcoat, his thin, bronzed face and fair
moustache; of the bride's grey gown, the knot of airy pink at her
throat, the coils of bright brown hair on which her hat was set, and the
buckles on her pretty shoes. Then the village retreated within doors
again; and each house buzzed and gossiped its fill. There had been a
certain amount of not very cordial response to George's salutations; but
to Letty's thinking the women had eyed her with an unpleasant and rather
"Mary Batchelor's house is down here," said George, turning into a
side lane, not without a feeling of relief. "I hope we sha'n't find
her out--no, there she is. You can't call these people affectionate,
They were close on a group of three brick cottages all close together.
Their doors were all open. In one cottage a stout collier's wife was
toiling through her wash. At the door of another the sewing-machine agent
was waiting for his weekly payment; while on the threshold of the third
stood an elderly tottering woman shading her eyes from the light as she
tried to make out the features of the approaching couple.
"Why, Mary!" said George, "you haven't forgotten me? I have brought my
wife to see you."
And he held out his hand with a boyish kindness.
The old woman looked at them both in a bewildered way. Her face, with its
long chin and powerful nose, was blanched and drawn, her grey hair
straggling from under her worn black-ribboned cap; and her black dress
had a neglected air, which drew George's attention. Mary Batchelor, so
long as he remembered her, whether as his old nurse, or in later days as
the Bible-woman of the village, had always been remarkable for a peculiar
dignity and neatness.
"Mary, is there anything wrong?" he asked her, holding her hand.
"Coom yer ways in," said the old woman, grasping his arm, and taking no
notice of Letty. "He's gone--he'll not freeten nobody--he wor here three
days afore they buried him. I could no let him go--but it's three weeks
now sen they put him away."
"Why, Mary, what is it? Not _James_!--not your son!" said George, letting
her guide him into the cottage.
"Aye, it's James--it's my son," she repeated drearily. "Will
yer be takkin a cheer--an perhaps"--she looked round uncertainly,
first at Letty, then at the wet floor where she had been feebly
scrubbing--"perhaps the leddy ull be sittin down. I'm nobbut in a
muddle. But I don't seem to get forard wi my work a mornins--not sen
they put im away."
And she dropped into a chair herself, with a long sigh--forgetting her
visitors apparently--her large and bony hands, scarred with their life's
work, lying along her knees.
George stood beside her silent a moment.
"I hardly like to say I hadn't heard," he said at last, gently. "You'll
think I _ought_ to have heard. But I didn't know. I have been in town and
"Aye," said Mary, without looking up, "aye, an yer've been gettin
married. I knew as yer didn't mean nothin onkind."
Then she stopped again--till suddenly, with a furtive gesture, she
raised her apron, and drew it across her eyes, which had the look of
On the other side of the cottage meanwhile a boy of about fourteen was
sitting. He had just done his afternoon's wash, and was resting himself
by the fire, enjoying a thumbed football almanac. He had not risen when
the visitors entered, and while his grandmother was speaking his lips
still moved dumbly, as he went on adding up the football scores. He was a
sickly, rather repulsive lad with a callous expression.
"Let me wait outside, George," said Letty, hurriedly.
Some instinct in her shrank from the poor mother and her story. But
George begged her to stay, and she sat down nervously by the door, trying
to protect her pretty skirt from the wet boards.
"Will you tell me how it was?" said George, sitting down himself in front
of the bowed mother, and bending towards her. "Was it in the pit? Jamie
wasn't one of our men, I know. Wasn't it for Mr. Morrison he worked?"
Mrs. Batchelor made a sign of assent. Then she raised her head quickly,
and a flash of some passionate convulsion passed through her face.
"It wor John Burgess as done it," she said, staring at George. "It wor
him as took the boy's life. But he's gone himsel--so theer--I'll not say
no more. It wor Jamie's first week o hewin--he'd been a loader this three
year, an taken a turn at the hewin now an again--an five weeks sen John
Burgess--he wor butty for Mr. Morrison, yer know, in the Owd Pit--took
him on, an the lad wor arnin six an sixpence a day. An he wor that
pleased yo cud see it shinin out ov im. And it wor on the Tuesday as he
went on the afternoon shift. I saw im go, an he wor down'earted. An I
fell a cryin as he went up the street, for I knew why he wor down'earted,
an I asked the Lord to elp him. And about six o'clock they come
runnin--an they towd me there'd bin an accident, an they wor bringin
im--an he wor alive--an I must bear up. They'd found him kneelin in his
place with his arm up, an the pick in it--just as the blast had took
him--An his poor back--oh! my God--scorched off him--_scorched off him_."
A shudder ran through her. But she recovered herself and went on, still
gazing intently at Tressady, her gaunt hand raised as though for
"An they braat him in, an they laid him on that settle"--she pointed to
the bench by the fire--"an the doctors didn't interfere--there wor nowt
to do--they left me alone wi un. But he come to, a minute after they laid
im down--an I ses, 'Jamie, ow did it appen' an he ses, 'Mother, it wor
John Burgess--ee opened my lamp for to light hissen as had gone out--an
I don't know no more.' An then after a bit he ses, 'Mother, don't you
fret--I'm glad I'm goin--I'd got the drink in me,' he ses. An then he
give two three little breaths, as though he wor pantin--an I kiss him."
She stopped, her face working, her trembling hands pressed hard against
each other on her knee. Letty felt the tears leap to her eyes in a rush
that startled herself.
"An he would a bin twenty-one year old, come next August--an allus a lad
as yer couldn't help gettin fond on--not sen he were a little un. An when
he wor layin there, I ses to myself, 'He's the third as the coal-gettin
ha took from me.' An I minded my feyther an uncle--how they was braat
home both togither, when I wor nobbut thirteen years old--not a scar on
em, nobbut a little blood on my feyther's forehead--but stone dead, both
on em--from the afterdamp. Theer was thirty-six men killed in that
explosion--an I recolleck how old Mr. Morrison--Mr. Walter's father--sent
the coffins round--an how the men went on because they warn't good ones.
Not a man would go down the pit till they was changed--if a man got the
life choked out of im, they thowt the least the masters could do was to
give un a dacent coffin to lie in. But theer--nobody helped me wi
Jamie--I buried him mysel--an it wor all o the best."
She dried her eyes again, sighing plaintively. George said what kind and
consoling things he could think of. Mary Batchelor put up her hand and
touched him on the arm as he leant over her.
"Aye, I knew yo'd be sorry--an yor wife--"
She turned feebly towards Letty, trying with her blurred and tear-dimmed
sight to make out what Sir George's bride might be like. She looked for a
moment at the small, elegant person in the corner,--at the sheaf of
nodding rosebuds on the hat--the bracelets--the pink cheeks under the
dainty veil,--looked with a curious aloofness, as though from a great
distance. Then, evidently, another thought struck her like a lash. She
ceased to see or think of Letty. Her grip tightened on George's arm.
"An I'm allus thinkin," she said, with a passionate sob, "of that what he
said about the drink. He'd allus bin a sober lad, till this lasst winter
it did seem as though he cudna keep hiself from it--it kep creepin on
im--an several times lately he'd broke out very bad, pay-days--an he knew
I'd been frettin. And who was ter blame--I ast yo, or onybody--who was it
Her voice rose to a kind of cry.
"His feyther died ov it, and his grandfeyther afore that. His
grandfeyther wor found dead i the roadside, after they'd made him
blind-drunk at owd Morse's public-house, where the butty wor reckonin
with im an his mates. But he'd never ha gone near the drink if they'd
hadn't druv him to't, for he wasn't inclined that way. But the butty as
gave him work kep the public, an if yer didn't drink, yer didn't get no
work. You must drink yoursel sick o Saturdays, or theer'd be no work for
you o Mondays. 'Noa, yer can sit at ome,' they'd say to un, 'ef yer so
damned pertickler.' I ast yor pardon, sir, for the bad word, but that's
ow they'd say it. I've often heerd owd John say as he'd a been glad to ha
given the butty back a shillin ov is pay to be let off the drink. An
Willum, that's my usband, he wor allus at it too--an the doctor towd me
one day, as Willum lay a-dyin, as it ran in the blood--an Jamie heard
im--I know he did--for I fouu im on the stairs--listenin."
She paused again, lost in a mist of incoherent memories, the tears
After a minute's silence, George said--not indeed knowing what to
say--"We're _very_ sorry for you, Mary--my wife and I--we wish we
could do anything to help you. I am afraid it can't make any difference
to you--I expect it makes it all the worse--to think that accidents are
so much fewer--that so much has been done. And yet times are mended,
Mary made no answer.
George sat looking at her, conscious, as he seldom was, of raw youth and
unreadiness--conscious, too, of Letty's presence in a strange, hindering
way--as of something that both blunted emotion and made one rather
ashamed to show it.
He could only pursue the lame topic of improvement, of changed times. The
disappearance of old abuses, of "butties" and "tommy-shops"; the greater
care for life; the accident laws; the inspectors. He found himself
growing eloquent at last, yet all the time regarding himself, as it were,
from a distance--ironically.
Mary Batchelor listened to him for a while, her head bent with something
of the submission of the old servant, till something he said roused
again the quick shudder, the look of anguished protest.
"Aye, I dessay it's aw reet, Mr. George--I dessay it is--what yer say.
The inspectors is very cliver--an the wages is paid proper. But
theer--say what yer will! I've a son on the railway out Lichfield
way--an he's allus taakin about is long hours--they're killing im, he
says--an I allus ses to im, 'Yer may jest thank the Lord, Harry, as yer
not in the pits.' He never gets no pity out o me. An soomtimes I wakes
in the morning, an I thinks o the men, cropin away in the dark--down
theer--under me and my bed--for they do say the pits now runs right
under Ferth village--an I think to mysel--how long will it be before yo
poor fellers is laying like my Jim? Yer may be reet about the
accidents, Mr. George--but I _know_, ef yer wor to go fro house to
house i this village--it would be like tis in the Bible--I've often
thowt o them words--'_Theer was not a house_--no, nary one!--_where
there was not one dead_.'"
She hung her head again, muttering to herself. George made out with
difficulty that she was going through one phantom scene after another--of
burning, wounds, and sudden death. One or two of the phrases--of the
fragmentary details that dropped out without name or place--made his
flesh creep. He was afraid lest Letty should hear them, and was just
putting out his hand for his hat, when Mrs. Batchelor gripped his arm
again. Her face--so white and large-featured--had the gleam of something
like a miserable smile upon it.
"Aye, an the men theirsels ud say jest as you do. 'Lor. Mrs. Batchelor,'
they'd say, 'why, the pits is as safe as a church'--an they'd
_laff_--Jamie ud laff at me times. But it's the _women_, Mr. George, as
knows--it's the women that ave to wash the bodies."
A great trembling ran through her again. George instinctively rose, and
motioned to Letty to go. She too rose, but she did not go. She stood by
the door, her wide grey eyes fixed with a kind of fascination on the
speaker; while behind her a ring of children could be seen in the street,
staring at the pretty lady.
Mary Batchelor saw nothing but Tressady, whom she was still holding by
the arm--looking up to him.
"Aye, but I didna disturb my Jamie, yer know. Noa!--I left im i the owd
coat they'd thrown over im i the pit--I dursn't ha touched is back. Noa,
I _dursn't_. But I made his shroud mysen, an I put it ower his poor
workin clothes, an I washed his face, an is hands an feet--an then I
kissed him, an I said, 'Jamie, yo mun go an tell the Lord as yo ha done
your best, an He ha dealt hardly by you!--an that's the treuth--He ha
dealt hardly by yer!'"
She gave a loud sob, and bowed her head on her hands a moment. Then,
pushing back her grey locks from her face, she rose, struggling for
"Aye, aye, Mr. George--aye, aye, I'll not keep yer no longer."
But as she took his hand, she added passionately:
"An I towd the vicar I couldn't be Bible-woman no more. Theer's somethin
broken in me sen Jamie died. I must keep things to mysen--I ain't got
nuthin good to say to others--I'm allus _grievin_ at the Lord. Good-bye
to yer--good-bye to yer."
Her voice had grown absent, indifferent. But when George asked her, just
as they were leaving the cottage, who was the boy sitting by the fire,
her face darkened. She came hurriedly to the door with them, and said in
"He's my darter's child--my darter by my first usband. His feyther an
mother are gone, an he come up from West Bromwich to live wi me. But he
isn't no comfort to me. He don't take no notice of anybody. He set like
that, with his football, when Jamie lay a-dyin. I'd as lief be shut on
him. But theer--I've got to put up wi im."
Letty meanwhile had approached the boy and looked at him curiously.
"Do you work in the pits too?" she asked him.
The boy stared at her.
"Yes," he said.
"Do you like it?"
He gave a rough laugh.
"I reckon yo've got to like it," he said. And turning his back on his
questioner, he went back to his almanac.
"Don't let us do any more visiting," said George, impatiently, as they
emerged into the main street. "I'm out of love with the village. We'll do
our blandishments another day. Let's go a little further up the valley
and get away from the houses."
Letty assented, and they walked along the village, she looking curiously
into the open doors of the houses, by way of return for the inquisitive
attention once more lavished upon herself and George.
"The houses are _quite_ comfortable," she said presently. "And I looked
into Mrs. Batchelor's back room while you were talking. It was just as
Mrs. Matthews said--such good carpets and curtains, two chests of
drawers, and an harmonium--and pictures--and flowers in the windows.
George! what are 'butties'?"
"'Butties' are sub-contractors," he said absently--"men who contract with
the pit-owners to get the coal, either on a large or a small scale--now
mostly on a small scale. They engage and pay the colliers in some pits,
in others the owners deal direct."
"And what is a 'tommy-shop'?"
"'Tommy' is the local word for 'truck'--paying in kind instead of in
money. You see, the butties and the owners between them used to own the
public-houses and the provision-shops, and the amount of coin of the
realm the men got in wages in the bad old times was infinitesimal. They
were expected to drink the butty's beer, and consume the butty's
provisions--at the butty's prices, of course--and the butty kept the
accounts. Oh! it was an abomination! but of course it was done away with
"Of course it was!" said Letty, indignantly. "They never remember what's
done for them. Did you see what _excellent_ teas there were laid out in
some of the houses--and those girls with their hats smothered in
feathers? Why, I should never dream of wearing so many!"
She was once more her quick, shrewd self. All trace of the tears that had
surprised her while Mary Batchelor was describing her son's death had
passed away. Her half-malicious eyes glanced to right and left, peering
into the secrets of the village.
"And these are the people that talk of starving!" she said to George,
scornfully, as they emerged into the open road. "Why, anyone can see--"
George, suddenly returned from a reverie, understood what she was saying,
and remarked, with an odd look:
"You think their houses aren't so bad? One is always a little
surprised--don't you think?--when the poor are comfortable? One takes it
as something to one's own credit--I detect it in myself scores of times.
Well!--one seems to say--they _could_ have done without it--one might
have kept it for oneself--what a fine generous fellow I am!"
"I didn't mean that at all," said Letty, protesting.
"Didn't you? Well, after all, darling--you see, you don't have to live in
those houses, nice as they are--and you don't have to do your own
scrubbing. Ferth may be a vile hole, but I suppose you could put a score
of these houses inside it--and I'm a pauper, but I can provide you with
two housemaids. I say, why do you walk so far away from me?"
And in spite of her resistance, he took her hand, put it through his arm,
and held it there.
"Look at me, darling," he said imperiously. "How _can_ anyone spy upon us
with these trees and high walls? I want to see how pretty and fresh you
look--I want to forget that poor thing and her tale. Do you know that
somewhere--far down in me--there's a sort of black pool--and when
anything stirs it up--for the moment I want to hang myself--the world
seems such an awful place! It got stirred up just now--not while she was
talking--but just as I looked back at that miserable old soul, standing
at her door. She used to be such a jolly old thing--always happy in her
Bible--and in Jamie, I suppose--quite sure that she was going to a nice
heaven, and would only have to wait a little bit, till Jamie got there
too. She seemed to know all about the Almighty's plans for herself and
everybody else. Her drunken husband was dead; my father left her a bit of
money, so did an old uncle, I believe. She'd gossip and pray and preach
with anybody. And now she'll weep and pine like that till she dies--and
she isn't sure even about heaven any more--and instead of Jamie, she's
got that oafish lad, that changeling, hung round her neck--to kick her
and ill-treat her in another year or two. Well! and do you ever think
that something like that has got to happen to all of us--something
hideous--some torture--something that'll make us wish we'd never been
born? Darling, am I a mad sort of a fool? Stop here--in the shade--give
me a kiss!"
And he made her pause at a shady corner in the road, between two oak
copses on either hand--a river babbling at the foot of one of them. He
put his arm round her, and stooping kissed her red lips with a kind of
covetous passion. Then, still holding her, he looked out from the trees
to the upper valley with its scattered villages, its chimneys and
"It struck me--what she said of the men under our feet. They're at it
now, Letty, hewing and sweating. Why are they there, and you and I here?
I'm _precious_ glad, aren't you? But I'm not going to make believe that
there's no difference. Don't let's he hypocrites, whatever we are."
Letty was perplexed and a little troubled. He had only shown her this
excitability once before--on that odd uncomfortable night when he made
her sit with him on the Embankment. Whenever it came it seemed to upset
her dominant impression of him. But yet it excited her too--it appealed
to something undeveloped--some yearning, protecting instinct which was
new to her.
She suddenly put up her hand and touched his hair.
"You talk so oddly, George. I think sometimes"--she laughed with a pretty
gaiety--"you'll go bodily over to Lady Maxwell and her 'set' some day!"
George made a contemptuous sound.
"May the Lord preserve us from quacks," he said lightly. "One had better
be a hypocrite. Look, little woman, there is a shower coming. Shall we
They walked home, chatting and laughing. At their own front door the
butler handed George a telegram. He opened it and read:
"Must come down to consult you on important business--shall arrive at
Perth about 9.30.--Amelia Tressady."
Letty, who was looking over George's shoulder, gave a little cry
Then, to avoid the butler's eyes and ears, they turned hurriedly into
George's smoking-room which opened off the hall, and shut the door.
"George! she has come to get more money out of you!" cried Letty, anger
and annoyance written in every line of her little frowning face.
"Well, darling, she can't get blood out of a stone!" said George,
crushing the telegram in his hand and throwing it away. "It is a little
too bad of my mother, I think, to spoil our honeymoon time like this.
However, it can't be helped. Will you tell them to get her room ready?"
"Now, my dear George! I do think I may claim at least that you should
remember I am your _mother_!"--the speaker raised a fan from her knee,
and used it with some vehemence. "Of course I can't help seeing that you
don't treat me as you ought to do. I don't want to complain of Letty--I
daresay she was taken by surprise--but all I can say as to her reception
of me last night is, that it wasn't pretty--that's all; it wasn't
_pretty_. My room felt like an ice-house--Justine tells me nobody has
slept there for months--and no fire until just the moment I arrived;
and--and no flowers on the dressing-table--no little _attentions_, in
fact. I can only say it was not what I am accustomed to. My feelings
overcame me; that poor dear Justine will tell you what a state she found
me in. She cried herself, to see me so upset."
Lady Tressady was sitting upright on the straight-backed sofa of
George's smoking-room. George, who was walking up and down the room,
thought, with discomfort, as he glanced at her from time to time, that
she looked curiously old and dishevelled. She had thrown a piece of
white lace round her head, in place of the more elaborate preparation
for the world's gaze that she was wont to make. Her dress--a study in
purples--had been a marvel, but was now old, and even tattered; the
ruffles at her wrist were tumbled; and the pencilling under her still
fine eyes had been neglected. George, between his wife's dumb anger and
his mother's folly, had passed through disagreeable times already since
Lady Tressady's arrival, and was now once more endeavouring to get to
the bottom of her affairs.
"You forget, mother," he said, in answer to Lady Tressady's complaint,
"that the house is not mounted for visitors, and that you gave us very
Nevertheless he winced inwardly as he spoke at the thought of Letty's
behaviour the night before.
Lady Tressady bridled.
"We will not discuss it, if you please," she said, with an attempt at
dignity. "I should have thought that you and Letty might have known I
should not have broken in on your honeymoon without most _pressing_
reasons. George!"--her voice trembled, she put her lace handkerchief to
her eyes--"I am an unfortunate and miserable woman, and if you--my own
darling son--don't come to my rescue, I--I don't know what I may be
driven to do!"
George took the remark calmly, having probably heard it before. He went
on walking up and down.
"It's no good, mother, dealing in generalities, I am afraid. You promised
me this morning to come to business. If you will kindly tell me at once
what is the matter, and what is the _figure_, I shall be obliged to you."
Lady Tressady hesitated, the lace on her breast fluttering. Then, in
desperation, she confessed herself first reluctantly, then in a torrent.
During the last two years, then, she said, she had been trying her luck
for the first time in--well, in speculation!
"Speculation!" said George, looking at her in amazement. "In what?"
Lady Tressady tried again to preserve her dignity. She had been
investing, she said--trying to increase her income on the Stock Exchange.
She had done it quite as much for George's sake as her own, that she
might improve her position a little, and be less of a burden upon him.
Everybody did it! Several of her best women-friends were as clever at it
as any man, and often doubled their allowances for the year. She, of
course, had done it under the _best_ advice. George knew that she had
friends in the City who would do anything--positively _anything_--for
her. But somehow--
Then her tone dropped. Her foot in its French shoe began to fidget on the
stool before her.
Somehow, she had got into the hands of a reptile--there! No other word
described the creature in the least--a sort of financial agent, who had
treated her unspeakably, disgracefully. She had trusted him implicitly,
and the result was that she now owed the reptile who, on the strength of
her name, her son, and her aristocratic connections, had advanced her
money for these adventures, a sum--
"Well, the truth is I am afraid to say what it is," said Lady Tressady,
allowing herself for once a cry of nature, and again raising a shaky hand
to her eyes.
"How much?" said George, standing over her, cigarette in hand.
"Well--four thousand pounds!" said Lady Tressady, her eyes blinking
involuntarily as she looked up at him.
"_Four thousand pounds!_" exclaimed George. "Preposterous!"
And, raising his hand, he flung his cigarette violently into the fire and
resumed his walk, hands thrust into his pockets.
Lady Tressady looked tearfully at his long, slim figure as he walked
away, conscious, however, even at this agitated moment, of the quick
thought that he had inherited some of her elegance.
"Yes--wait a moment--mother"--he faced round upon her decidedly. "Let me
tell you at once, that at the present moment it is quite impossible for
me to find that sum of money."
Lady Tressady flushed passionately like a thwarted child.
"Very well, then," she said--"very well. Then it will be bankruptcy--and
I hope you and Letty will like the scandal!"
"So he threatens bankruptcy?"
"Do you think I should have come down here except for something like
that?" she cried. "Look at his letters!"
And she took a tumbled roll out of the bag on her arm and gave it to him.
George threw himself into a chair, and tried to get some idea of the
correspondence; while Lady Tressady kept up a stream of plaintive chatter
he could only endeavour not to hear.
As far as he could judge on a first inspection, the papers concerned a
long series of risky transactions,--financial gambling of the most
pronounced sort,--whereof the few gains had been long since buried deep
in scandalous losses. The outrageous folly of some of the ventures and
the magnitude of the sums involved made him curse inwardly. It was the
first escapade of the kind he could remember in his mother's history,
and, given her character, he could only regard it as adding a new and
real danger to his life and Letty's.
Then another consideration struck him.
"How on earth did you come to know so much about the ins and outs of
Stock Exchange business," he asked her suddenly, with surprise, in the
midst of his reading. "You never confided in me. I never supposed you
took an interest in such things."
In truth, he would have supposed her mentally incapable of the kind of
gambling finance these papers bore witness of. She had never been known
to do a sum or present an account correctly in her life; and he had
often, in his own mind, accepted her density in these directions as a
certain excuse for her debts. Yet this correspondence showed here and
there a degree of financial legerdemain of which any City swindler
might have been proud--so far, at least, as he could judge from his
Lady Tressady drew herself up sharply in answer to his remark, though not
without a flutter of the eyelids which caught his attention.
"Of course, my dear George, I always knew you thought your mother a
fool. As a matter of fact, all my friends tell me that I have a _very_
George could not restrain, himself from laughing aloud.
"In face of this?" he said, holding up the final batch of letters, which
contained Mr. Shapetsky's last formidable account; various imperious
missives from a "sharp-practice" solicitor, whose name happened to be
disreputably known to George Tressady; together with repeated and most
explicit assurances on the part both of agent and lawyer, that if
arrangements were not made at once by Lady Tressady for meeting at least
half Mr. Shapetsky's bill--which had now been running some eighteen
months--and securing the other half, legal steps would be taken
Lady Tressady at first met her son's sarcasm in angry silence, then broke
into shrill denunciation of Shapetsky's "villanies." How could decent
people, people in society, protect themselves against such creatures!
George walked to the window, and stood looking out into the April garden.
Presently he turned, and interrupted his mother.
"I notice, mother, that these transactions have been going on for nearly
two years. Do you remember, when I gave you that large sum at Christmas,
you said it would 'all but' clear you; and when I gave you another large
sum last month, you professed to be entirely cleared? Yet all the time
you were receiving these letters, and you owed this fellow almost as
much as you do now. Do you think it was worth while to mislead me in
He stood leaning against the window, his fingers drumming on the sill.
The contrast between the youth of the figure and the absence of youth in
face and voice was curious. Perhaps Lady Tressady felt vaguely that he
looked like a boy and spoke like a master, for her pride rose.
"You have no right to speak to me like that, George! I did everything for
the best. I always do everything for the best. It is my misfortune to be
so--so confiding, so hopeful. I must always believe in someone--that's
what makes my friends so _extremely_ fond of me. You and your poor
darling father were never the least like me--" And she went off into a
tearful comparison between her own character and the characters of her
husband and son--in which of course it was not she that suffered.
George did not heed her. He was once more staring out of window, thinking
hard. So far as he could see, the money, or the greater part of it, would
have to be found. The man, of course, was a scoundrel, but of the sort
that keeps within the law; and Lady Tressady's monstrous folly had given
him an easy prey. When he thought of the many sacrifices he had made for
his mother, of her ample allowance, her incorrigible vanity and
greed--and then of the natural desires of his young wife--his heart
burned within him.
"Well, I can only tell you," he said at last, turning round upon her,
"that I see no way out. How is that man's claim to be met? I don't know.
Even if I _could_ meet it--which I see no chance of doing--by crippling
myself for some time, how should I be at liberty to do it? My wife and
her needs have now the first claim upon me."
"Very well," said Lady Tressady, proudly, raising her handkerchief,
however, to hide her trembling lips.
"Let me remind you," he continued, ceremoniously, "that the whole of this
place is in bad condition, except the few rooms we have just done up, and
that money _must_ be spent upon it--it is only fair to Letty that it
should be spent. Let me remind you also, that you are a good deal
responsible for this state of things."
Lady Tressady moved uneasily. George was now speaking in his usual
half-nonchalant tone, and he had provided himself with another cigarette.
But his eye held her.
"You will remember that you promised me while I was abroad to live here
and look after the house. I arranged money affairs with you, and other
affairs, upon that basis. But it appears that during the four years I was
away you were here altogether, at different times, about three months.
Yet you made me believe you were here; if I remember right, you dated
your letters from here. And of course, in four years, an old house that
is totally neglected goes to the bad."
"Who has been telling you such falsehoods?" cried Lady Tressady. "I was
here a great deal more than that--a great deal more!"
But the scarlet colour, do what she would, was dyeing her still delicate
skin, and her eyes alternately obstinate and shuffling, tried to take
themselves out of the range of George's.
As for George, as he stood there coolly smoking, he was struck--or,
rather, the critical mind in him was struck--by a sudden perception of
the meanness of aspect which sordid cares of the kind his mother was now
plunged in can give to the human face. He felt the rise of a familiar
disgust. How many scenes of ugly battle over money matters could he not
remember in his boyhood between his father and mother! And later--in
India--what things he had known women do for money or dress! He thought
scornfully of a certain intriguing lady of his acquaintance at
Madras--who had borrowed money of him--to whom he had given ball-dresses;
and of another, whose selfish extravagance had ruined one of the best of
men. Did all women tend to be of this make, however poetic might be their
Aloud, he said quietly, in answer to his mother's protest:
"I think you will find that is about accurate. I mention it merely to
show you how it is that I find myself now plunged in so many expenses.
And, now, doesn't it strike you as a _little_ hard that I should be
called upon to strip and cripple myself still further--_not_ to give my
wife the comforts and conveniences I long to give her, but to pay such
debts as those?"
Involuntarily he struck his hand on the papers lying in the chair where
he had been sitting.
Lady Tressady, too, rose from her seat.
"George, if you are going to be _violent_ towards your mother, I had
better go," she said, with an attempt at dignity. "I suppose Letty has
been gossiping with her servants about me. Oh! I knew what to expect!"
cried Lady Tressady, gathering up fan and handkerchief from the sofa
behind her with a hand that shook. "I always said from the beginning that
she would set you against me! She has never treated me as--as a
daughter--never! And that is my weakness--I must be cared for--I must be
treated with--with tenderness."
"I wouldn't give way, mother, if I were you," said George, quite
unmoved by the show of tears. "I think, if you will reflect upon it,
that it is Letty and I who have the most cause to give way. If you will
allow me, I will go and have a talk with her. I believe she is sitting
in the garden."
His mother turned sullenly away from him, and he left the room.
* * * * *
As he passed through the long oak-panelled hall that led to the garden,
he was seized with an odd sense of pity for himself. This odious scene
behind him, and now this wrestle with Letty that must be gone
through--were these the joys of the honeymoon?
Letty was not in the garden. But as he passed into the wood on the
farther side of the hill he saw her sitting under a tree halfway down the
slope, with some embroidery in her hand. The April sun was shining into
the wood. A larch beyond Letty was already green, and the twigs of the
oak beneath which she sat made a reddish glow in the bright air. Patches
of primroses and anemones starred the ground about her, and trails of
periwinkle touched her dress. She was stooping, and her little hand went
rapidly--impatiently--to and fro.
The contrast between this fresh youth amid the spring and that unlovely,
reluctant age he had just left behind him in the smoking-room struck him
sharply. His brow cleared.
As she heard his step she looked round eagerly. "Well?" she said,
pushing aside her work.
He threw himself down beside her.
"Darling, I have had my talk. It is pretty bad--worse than we had even
Then he told her his mother's story. She could hardly contain herself, as
she listened, as he mentioned the total figure of the debts. It was
evidently with difficulty that she prevented herself from interrupting
him at every word. And when he had barely finished she broke out:
"And what did you say?"
"I told her, of course, that it was monstrous and absurd to expect that
we could pay such a sum."
Letty's breath came fast. His voice and manner did not satisfy her at
"Monstrous? I should think it was! Do you know how she has run up
George looked at her in surprise. Her little face was quivering under the
suppressed energy of what she was going to say.
"Yes!--I know all about it. I said to my maid last night--I hope, George,
you won't mind, but you know Grier has been an age with me, and knows all
my secrets--I told her she must make friends with your mother's maid, and
see what she could find out. I felt we _must_, in self-defence. And of
course Grier got it all out of Justine. I knew she would! Justine is a
little fool; and she doesn't mean to stay much longer with Lady Tressady,
so she didn't mind speaking. It is exactly as I supposed! Lady Tressady
didn't begin speculating for herself at all--but for--somebody--else! Do
you remember that absurd-looking singer who gave a 'musical sketch' one
day that your mother gave a party in Eccleston Square--in February?"
She looked at him with eagerness, an ugly, half-shrinking innuendo in her
George had suddenly moved away, and was sitting now some little distance
from his wife, his eyes bent on the ground. However, at her question he
made a sign of assent.
"You do remember? Well," said Letty, triumphantly, "it is he who is at
the bottom of it all. I _knew_ there must be somebody. It appears that he
has been getting money out of her for years--that he used to come and
spend hours, when she had that little house in Bruton Street, when you
were away--I don't believe you ever heard of it--flattering her, and
toadying her, paying her compliments on her dress and her appearance,
fetching and carrying for her--and of course living upon her! He used to
arrange all her parties. Justine says that he used even to make her order
all his favourite wines--_such_ bills as there used to be for wine! He
has a wife and children somewhere, and of course the whole family lived
upon your mother. It was he made her begin speculating. Justine says he
has lost all he ever had himself that way, and your mother couldn't, in
fact, '_lend'_ him"--Letty laughed scornfully--"money fast enough. It was
he brought her across that odious creature Shapetsky--isn't that his
name? And that's the whole story. If there have been any gains, he has
made off with them--leaving her, of course, to get out of the rest.
Justine says that for months there was nothing but business, as she calls
it, talked in the house--and she knew, for she used to help wait at
dinner. And such a crew of people as used to be about the place!"
She looked at him, struck at last by his silence and his attitude, or
pausing for some comment, some appreciation of her cleverness in
ferreting it all out.
But he did not speak, and she was puzzled. The angry triumph in her eyes
faltered. She put out her hand and touched him on the arm.
"What is it, George? I thought--it would be more satisfactory to us both
to know the truth."
He looked up quickly.
"And all this your maid got out of Justine? You asked her?"
She was struck, offended, by his expression. It was so cool and
strange--even, she could have imagined, contemptuous.
"Yes, I did," she said passionately. "I thought I was quite justified. We
must protect ourselves."
He was silent again.
"I think," he said at last, drily, she watching him--"I think we will
keep Justine and Grier out of it, if you please."
She took her work, and laid it down again, her mouth trembling.
"So you had rather be deceived?"
"I had rather be deceived than listen behind doors," he said, beginning
in a light tone, which, however, passed immediately into one of
bitterness. "Besides, there is nothing new. For people like my mother
there is always some adventurer or adventuress in the background--there
always used to be in old days. She never meant any serious harm; she was
first plundered, then we. My father used to be for ever turning some
impostor or other out of doors. Now I suppose it is my turn."
This time it was Letty who kept silence. Her needle passed rapidly to and
fro. George glanced at her queerly. Then he rose and came to stand near
her, leaning against the tree.
"You know, Letty, we shall have to pay that money," he said suddenly,
pulling at his moustache.
Letty made an exclamation under her breath, but went on working faster
He slipped down to the moss beside her, and caught her hand.
"Are you angry with me?"
"If you insult me by accusing me of listening behind doors you can't
wonder," said Letty, snatching her hand away, her breast heaving.
He felt a bitter inclination to laugh, but he restrained it, and did
his best to make peace. In the midst of his propitiations Letty
turned upon him.
"Of course, I know you think I did it all for selfishness," she said,
half crying, "because I want new furniture and new dresses. I don't; I
want to protect you from being--being--plundered like this. How can you
do what you ought as a member of Parliament? how can we ever keep
ourselves out of debt if--if--? How _can_ you pay this money?" she wound
up, her eyes flaming.
"Well, you know," he said, hesitating--"you know I suggested yesterday
we should sell some land to do up the house. I am afraid we must sell the
laud, and pay this scoundrel--a proportion, at all events. Of course,
what I should _like_ to do would be to put him--and the other--to instant
death, with appropriate tortures! Short of that, I can only take the
matter out of my mother's hands, get a sharp solicitor on my side to
match _his_ rascal, and make the best bargain I can."
Letty rolled up her work with energy, two tears of anger on her cheeks.
"She _ought_ to suffer!" she cried, her voice trembling--"she _ought_
"You mean that we ought to let her be made a bankrupt?" he said coolly.
"Well, no doubt it would be salutary. Only, I am afraid it would be
rather more disagreeable to us than to her. Suppose we consider the
situation. Two young married people--charming house--charming
wife--husband just beginning in politics--people inclined to be friends.
Then you go to dine with them in Brook Street--excellent little French
dinner--bride bewitching. Next morning you see the bankruptcy of the
host's mamma in the 'Times.' 'And he's the only son, isn't he?--he must
be well off. They say she's been dreadfully extravagant. But, hang it!
you know, a man's mother!--and a widow--no, I can't stand that. Sha'n't
dine with them again!' There! do you see, darling? Do you really want to
rub all the bloom off the peach?"
He had hardly finished his little speech before the odiousness of it
"Am I come to talking to her like _this_?" he asked himself in a kind of
But Letty, apparently, was not astonished.
"Everybody would understand if you refused to ruin yourself by going on
paying these frightful debts. I am sure _something_ could be done," she
said, half choked.
George shook his head.
"But everybody wouldn't want to understand. The dear world loves a
scandal--doesn't really _like_ being amiable to newcomers at all. You
would make a bad start, dear--and all the world would pity mamma."
"Oh! if you are only thinking what people would say," cried Letty.
"No," said George, reflectively, but with a mild change of tone. "Damn
people! I can pull myself to pieces so much better than they can. You
see, darling, you're such an optimist. Now, if you'd only just believe,
as I do, that the world is a radically bad place, you wouldn't be so
surprised when things of this sort happen. Eh, little person, has it been
a radically bad place this last fortnight?"
He laid his cheek against her shoulder, rubbing it gently up and down.
But something hard and scornful lay behind his caress--something he did
not mean to inquire into.
"Then you told your mother," said Letty, after a pause, still looking
straight before her, "that you would clear her?"
"Not at all. I said we could do nothing. I laid it on about the house.
And all the time I knew perfectly well in my protesting soul, that if
this man's claim is sustainable we should _have_ to pay up. And I imagine
that mamma knew it too. You can get out of anybody's debts but your
mother's--that's apparently what it comes to. Queer thing, civilisation!
Well now"--he sprang to his feet--"let's go and get it over."
Letty also rose.
"I can't see her again," she said quickly. "I sha'n't come down to lunch.
Will she go by the three-o'clock train?"
"I will arrange it," said George.
They walked through the wood together silently. As they came in sight of
the house Letty's face quivered again with restrained passion--or tears.
George, whose _sangfroid_ was never disturbed outwardly for long, had by
now resigned himself, and had, moreover, recovered that tolerance of
woman's various weaknesses which was in him the fruit of a wide, and at
bottom hostile, induction. He set himself to cheer her up. Perhaps, after
all, if he could sell a particular piece of land which he owned near a
neighbouring large town, and sell it well,--he had had offers for it
before,--he might be able to clear his mother, and still let Letty work
her will on the house. She mustn't take a gloomy view of things--he would
do his best. So that by the time they got into the drawing-room she had
let her hand slip doubtfully into his again for a moment.
But nothing would induce her to appear at lunch. Lady Tressady, having
handed over all Shapetsky's papers and all her responsibilities to
George, graciously told him that she could understand Letty's annoyance,
and didn't wish for a moment to intrude upon her. She then called on
Justine to curl her hair, put on a blue shot silk with marvellous pink
fronts just arrived from Paris, and came down to lunch with her son in
her most smiling mood. She took no notice of his monosyllables, and in
the hall, while the butler discreetly retired, she kissed him with tears,
saying that she had always known his generosity would come to the rescue
of his poor darling mamma.
"You will oblige me, mother, by not trying it again too soon," was
George's ironical reply as he put her into the carriage.
* * * * *
In the afternoon Letty was languid and depressed. She would not talk on
general topics, and George shrank in nervous disgust from reopening the
subjects of the morning. Finally, she chose to be tucked up on the sofa
with a novel, and gave George free leave to go out.
It surprised him to find as he walked quickly down the hill, delighting
in the April sun, that he was glad to be alone. But he did not in the
least try to fling the thought away from him, as many a lover would have
done. The events, the feelings of the day, had been alike jarring and
hateful; he meant to escape from them.
But he could not escape from them all at once. A fresh and unexpected
debt of somewhere about four thousand pounds does not sit lightly on a
comparatively poor man. In spite of his philosophy for Letty's benefit,
he must needs harass himself anew about his money affairs, planning and
reckoning. How many more such surprises would his mother spring upon
him--and how was he to control her? He realised now something of the
life-long burden his dull old father had borne--a burden which the
absences of school, college, and travel had hitherto spared himself. What
was he to appeal to in her? There seemed to be nothing--neither will nor
conscience. She was like the women without backs in the fairy-tale.
Then, with one breath he said to himself that he must kick out that
singer-fellow, and with the next, that he would not touch any of his
mother's crew with a barge-pole. Though he never pleaded ideals in
public, he had been all his life something of a moral epicure, taking
"moral" as relating rather to manners than to deeper things. He had done
his best not to soil himself by contact with certain types--among men
especially. Of women he was less critical and less observant.
As to this ugly feud opening between his mother and his wife, it had
quite ceased to amuse him. Now that his marriage was a reality, the daily
corrosion of such a thing was becoming plain. And who was there in the
world to bear the brunt of it but he? He saw himself between the
two--eternally trying to make peace--and his face lengthened.
And if Letty would only leave the thing to him!--would only keep her
little white self out of it! He wished he could get her to send away that
woman Grier--a forward second-rate creature, much too ready to meddle in
what did not concern her.
Then, with a shake of his thin shoulders, he passionately drove it all
out of his thoughts.
Let him go to the village, sound the feeling there if he could, and do
his employer's business. His troubles as a pit-owner seemed likely to be
bad enough, but they did not canker one like domestic miseries. They were
a man's natural affairs; to think of them came as a relief to him.
* * * * *
He had but a disappointing round, however.
In the first place he went to look up some of the older "hewers," men who
had been for years in the employ of the Tressadys. Two or three of them
had just come back from the early shift, and their wives, at any rate,
were pleased and flattered by George's call. But the men sat like stocks
and stones while he talked. Scarcely a word could be got out of them, and
George felt himself in an atmosphere of storm, guessing at dangers,
everywhere present, though not yet let loose--like the foul gases in the
pits under his feet.
He behaved with a good deal of dignity, stifling his pride here and there
sufficiently to talk simply and well of the general state of trade, the
conditions of the coal industry in the West Mercian district, the
position of the masters, the published accounts of one or two large
companies in the district, and so on. But in the end he only felt his own
auger rising in answer to the sullenness of the men. Their sallow faces
and eyes weakened by long years of the pit expressed little--but what
there was spelt war.
Nor did his visits to what might be called his own side give him much
One man, a brawny "fireman," whom George had been long taught to regard
as one of the props of law and order in the district, was effusively and
honestly glad to see his employer. His wife hurried the tea, and George
drank and ate as heartily as his own luncheon would let him in company
with Macgregor and his very neat and smiling family. Nothing could be
more satisfactory than Macgregor's general denunciations of the Union and
its agent. Burrows, in his opinion, was a "drunken, low-livin scoundrel,"
who got his bread by making mischief; the Union was entering upon a great
mistake in resisting the masters' proposals; and if it weren't for the
public-house and idleness there wasn't a man in Perth that couldn't live
_well_, ten per cent. reduction and all considered. Nevertheless, he did
not conceal his belief that battle was approaching, and would break out,
if not now, at any rate in the late summer or autumn. Times, too, were
going to be specially bad for the non-society men. The membership of the
Union had been running up fast; there had been a row that very morning at
the pit where he worked, the Union men refusing to go down in the same
cage with the blacklegs. He and his mates would have to put their backs
into it. Never fear but they would! Bullying might be trusted only to
make them the more "orkard."
Nothing could have been more soothing than such talk to the average
employer in search of congenial opinions. But George was not the average
employer, and the fastidious element in him began soon to make him
uncomfortable. Sobriety is, no doubt, admirable, but he had no sooner
detected a teetotal cant in his companion than that particular axiom
ceased to matter to him. And to think poorly of Burrows might be a
salutary feature in a man's character, but it should be for some
respectable reason. George fidgeted on his chair while Macgregor told
the usual cock-and-bull stories of monstrous hotel-bills seen sticking
out of Burrows's tail-pockets, and there deciphered by a gaping
populace; and his mental discomfort reached its climax when Macgregor
wound up with the remark:
"And _that_, Sir George, is where the money goes to!--not to the poor
starving women and children, I can tell yer, whose husbands are keepin
him in luxury. I've always said it. _Where's the accounts?_ I've never
seen no balance-sheet--_never!_" he repeated solemnly. They do say as
there's one to be seen at the 'lodge'--"
"Why, of course there is, Macgregor," said George, with a nervous laugh,
as he got up to depart; "all the big Unions publish their accounts."
The fireman's obstinate mouth and stubbly hair only expressed a more
"Well, I shouldn't believe in em," he said, "if they did. I've niver seen
a balance-sheet, and I don't suppose I ever shall. Well, good-bye to you,
Sir George, and thank you kindly. Yo take my word, sir, if it weren't for
the public-house the men could afford to lose a trifle now and again to
let the masters make their fair profit!"
And he looked behind him complacently at his neat cottage and
But George walked away, impatient.
"_His_ wages won't go down, anyway," he said to himself--for the wages of
the "firemen," whose work is of the nature of superintendence, hardly
vary with the state of trade. "And what suspicious idiocy about the
His last visit was the least fortunate of any. The fireman in question,
Mark Dowse, Macgregor's chief rival in the village, was a keen Radical,
and George found him chuckling over his newspaper, and the defeat of the
Tory candidate in a recently decided County Council election. He received
his visitor with a surprise which George thought not untinged with
insolence. Some political talk followed, in which Dowse's Yorkshire wit
scored more than once at his employer's expense. Dowse, indeed, let
himself go. He was on the point of taking the examination for an
under-manager's certificate and leaving the valley. Hence there were no
strong reasons for servility, and he might talk as he pleased to a young
"swell" who had sold himself to reaction. George lost his temper
somewhat, was furiously ashamed of himself, and could only think of
getting out of the man's company with dignity.
He was by no means clear, however, as he walked away from the cottage,
that he had succeeded in doing so. What was the good of trying to make
friends with these fellows? Neither in agreement nor in opposition had
he any common ground with them. Other people might have the gifts for
managing them; it seemed to him that it would be better for him to
take up the line at once that he had none. Fontenoy was right. Nothing
but a state of enmity was possible--veiled enmity at some times, open