Part 2 out of 6
He was about to say "No," for it would mean revealing the whole affair
to his wife at once. But after an instant he said "Yes." He would not
refuse that exquisite, appealing gesture. Besides, why keep anything
whatever from Olive, even for a day?
At dinner he told his wife, and was glad to learn that she also thought
highly of Mimi and had confidence in her.
Mimi lay in bed in the nursery of the hired house on the way to
Rottingdean, which, considering that it was not "home," was a fairly
comfortable sort of abode. The nursery was immense, though an attic. The
white blinds of the two windows were drawn, and a fire burned in the
grate, lighting it pleasantly and behaving in a very friendly manner. At
the other end of the room, in the deep shadow, was Jean's bed.
The door opened quietly and someone came into the room and pushed the
door to without quite shutting it.
"Is that you, mamma?" Jean demanded in his shrill voice, from the
distance of the bed in the corner. His age was exactly eight.
"Yes, dear," said the new stepmother.
The menial Ada had arranged the children for the night, and now the
stepmother had come up to kiss them and be kind. She was a conscientious
young woman, full of a desire to do right, and she had determined not to
be like the traditional stepmother.
She kissed Jean, who had taken quite a fancy to her, and tickled him
agreeably, and tucked him up anew, and then moved silently across the
room to Mimi. Mimi could see her face in the twilight of the fire. A
handsome, good-natured face; yet very determined, and perhaps a little
too full of common sense. It had a responsible, somewhat grave look.
After all, these two young children were a responsibility, especially
Mimi with her back; and, moreover, Pierre Emile Vaillac had disappointed
both her and her step-children by telegraphing that he could not arrive
that night. Olive One, the bride of three months, had put on fine
raiment for nothing.
"Well, Mimi," she said in her low, vibrating voice, as she stood over
the bed, "I do hope you didn't overtire yourself this afternoon." Then
she kissed Mimi.
"Oh no, mamma!" The little girl smiled.
"It seems you waited outside the barber's while Jeannot was having his
"Yes, mamma. I didn't like to go in."
"Ada didn't stay with you all the time?"
"No, mamma. First of all she took Jeannot in, and then she came out to
me, and then she went in again to see how long he would be."
"I'm sorry she left you alone in the street. She ought not to have done
so, and I've told her.... The King's Road, with all kinds of people
Mimi said nothing. The new Madame Vaillac moved a little towards the
"Of course," the latter went on, "I know you're a regular little woman,
and perhaps I needn't tell you but you must never speak to anyone in the
"Particularly in Brighton.... You never do, do you?"
The stepmother left the room. Mimi could feel her heart beating. Then
Jean called out:
She made no reply. The fact was she was too disturbed to be able to
Jean called again and then got out of bed and thudded across the room to
"I say, Mimi," he screeched in his insistent treble, "who _was_ it you
were talking to?"
Mimi's heart did not beat, it jumped.
"This afternoon, when I was having my hair cut."
"How do you know I was talking to anybody?"
"Ada saw you through the window of the barber's."
"When did she tell you?"
"She didn't. I heard her telling mamma."
There was a silence. Then Mimi hid her face, and Jean could hear
"You might tell me!" Jean insisted. He was too absorbed by his own
curiosity, and too upset by the full realization of the fact that she
had kept something from him, to be touched by her tears.
"It's a secret," she muttered into the pillow.
"You might tell me!"
"Go away, Jeannot!" she burst out hysterically.
He gave an angry lunge against the bed.
"I tell you everything; and it's not fair. _C'est pas juste!_" he said
savagely, but there were tears in his voice too. He was a creature at
once sensitive and violent, passionately attached to Mimi.
He thudded back to his bed. But even before he had reached his bed Mimi
could hear him weeping.
She gradually stilled her own sobs, and after a time Jean's ceased. And
then she guessed that Jean had gone to sleep. But Mimi did not go to
sleep. She knew that chance, and Mr Coe, and that odious new servant,
Ada, had combined to ruin her life. She saw the whole affair clearly.
Ada was officious and fussy, also secretive and given to plotting. Ada's
leading idea was that children had to be circumvented. Imagine the
detestable woman spying on her from the window, and then saying nothing
to her, but sneaking off to tell tales to her mamma! Imagine it! Mimi's
strict sense of justice could not blame her mamma. She was sure that
the new stepmother meant well by her. Her mamma had given her every
opportunity to confess, to admit of her own accord that she had been
talking to somebody in the street, and she had not confessed. On the
contrary, she had lied. Her mamma would probably say nothing more on the
matter, for she had a considerable sense of honour with children, and
would not take an unfair advantage. Having tried to obtain a confession
from Mimi by pretending that she knew nothing, and having failed, she
was not the woman to turn round and say, "Now I know all about it. So
just confess at once!" Her mamma would accept the situation, would try
to behave as if nothing had happened, and would probably even say
nothing to her father.
But Mimi knew that she was ruined for ever in her stepmother's esteem.
And she had quarrelled with Jean, which was exceedingly hateful and
exceedingly rare. And there was also the private worry of her mysterious
back. And there was another thing. The mere fact that her friend, Mr
Coe, had gone and married somebody. For long she had had a weakness for
Mr Coe. They had been intimate at times. Once, last year, in the stern
of a large sailing-boat at Morecambe, while her friends were laughing
and shouting at the prow, she and Mr Coe had had a most beautiful quiet
conversation about her thoughts on the world in general; she had stroked
his hand.... No! She had no dream whatever of growing up into a woman
and then marrying Mr Coe! Certainly not. But still, that he should have
gone and married, like that ... it was....
The fire died out into blackness, thus ceasing to be a friend. Still she
did not sleep. Was it likely that she should sleep, with the tragedy and
woe of the entire universe crushing her?
Mr Edward Coe and Olive Two arose from their bed the next morning in
great spirits. Mr Coe had told both his wife and Mimi that the hour of
departure from Rottingdean would be six o'clock. But this was an
exaggeration. So far as his wife was concerned he had already found it
well to exaggerate on such matters. A little judicious exaggeration
lessened the risk of missing trains and other phenomena which cannot be
missed without confusion and disappointment.
As a fact it was already six o'clock when Edward Coe looked forth from
the bedroom window. He was completely dressed. His wife also was
completely dressed. He therefore felt quite safe about the train. The
window, which was fairly high up in the world, gave on the south-east,
so that he had a view, not only of the vast naked downs billowing away
towards Newhaven, but also of the Channel, which was calm, and upon
which little parcels of fog rested. The sky was clear overhead, of a
greenish sapphire colour, and the autumnal air bit and gnawed on the
skin like some friendly domestic animal, and invigorated like an
expensive tonic. On the dying foliage of a tree near the window millions
of precious stones hung. Cocks were boasting. Cows were expressing a
justifiable anxiety. And in the distance a small steamer was making a
great deal of smoke about nothing, as it puffed out of Newhaven harbour.
"Olive," he said.
"What is it?"
She was putting hats into the top of her trunk. She had a special
hat-box, but the hats were too large for it, and she packed minor
trifles in the hat-box, such as skirts. This was one of the details
which first indicated to an astounded Edward Coe that a woman is never
less like a man than when travelling.
"Come here," he commanded her.
"Look at that," he commanded her, pointing to the scene of which the
window was the frame.
She obeyed. She also looked at him with her dark, passionate, and yet
"Yes," she said, "and who's going to make that trunk lock?"
She snapped her fingers at the sweet morning influences of Nature, to
which he was peculiarly sensitive. And yet he was delighted. He found it
entirely delicious that she should say, when called upon to admire
Nature: "Who's going to make that trunk lock?"
He stroked her hair.
"It's no use trying to keep your hair decent at the seaside," she
remarked, pouting exquisitely.
He explained that his hand was offering no criticism of her hair. And
then there was a knock at the bedroom door, and Olive Two jumped a
little away from her husband.
"Come in," he cried, pretending to be as bold as a lion.
However, he had forgotten that the door was locked, and he had to go and
A tray with coffee and milk and sugar and slices of bread-and-butter was
in the doorway, and behind the tray the little parlour-maid of the
little hotel. He greeted the girl and instructed her to carry the
tray to the table by the window.
"You are prompt," said Olive Two, kindly. She had got up so miraculously
early herself that she was startled to see any other woman up quite as
early. And also she was a little surprised that the parlour-maid showed
no surprise at these very unusual hours.
"Yes'm," replied the parlour-maid, wondering why Olive Two was so
excited. The parlour-maid arose at five-thirty every morning of her
life, except on special occasions, when she arose at four-thirty to
assist in pastoral affairs.
"All right, this coffee, eh?" murmured Edward Coe as he put down the
steaming cup after his first sip. They were alone again, seated opposite
each other at the small table by the window.
Olive Two nodded.
It must not be supposed that this was the one unique dreamed-of hotel in
England where the coffee is good of its own accord. No! In the matter of
coffee this hotel was just like all other hotels. Only Olive Two had
taken special precautions about that coffee. She had been into the hotel
kitchen on the previous evening about that coffee.
"By the way," she asked, "where's the sun?"
"The sun doesn't happen to be up yet," said Edward. He looked at his
diary and then at his watch. "Unless something goes wrong, you'll be
seeing it inside of three minutes."
"Do you mean to say we shall see the sun rise?" she exclaimed.
"Well!" cried she, absurdly gleeful, "I never heard of such a thing!"
She watched the sunrise like a child who sees for the first time the
inside of a watch. And when the sun had risen she glanced anxiously
round the disordered room.
"For heaven's sake," she muttered, "don't let's forget these
"You are so ridiculous," said he, "that I must kiss you."
The truth is that they were no better than two children out on an
It was the same when down in the hotel-yard they got into the small and
decrepit victoria which was destined to take them and their luggage to
Brighton. It was the same, but more so. They were both so pleased with
themselves that their joy was bubbling continually out in manifestations
that could only be described as infantile. The mere drive through the
village, with the pony whisking his tail round corners, and the driver
steadying the perilous hat-box with his left hand, was so funny that
somehow they could not help laughing.
Then they had left the village and were climbing the exposed highroad,
with the wavy blue-green downs on the right, and the immense glittering
flat floor of the Channel on the left. And the mere sensation of being
alive almost overwhelmed them.
And further on they passed a house that stood by itself away from the
road towards the cliffs. It had a sloping garden and a small greenhouse.
The gate leading to the road was ajar, but the blinds of all the windows
were drawn, and there was no sign of life anywhere.
"That's the house," said Edward Coe, briefly.
"I might have known it," Olive Two replied. "Olive One is certainly the
worst getter-up that I ever had anything to do with, and I believe
Pierre Emile isn't much better."
"Well," said Edward, "it's no absolute proof of sluggardliness not to be
up and about at six forty-five of a morning, you know."
"I was forgetting how early it was!" said Olive Two, and yawned. The
yawn escaped her before she was aware of it. She pulled herself together
and kissed her hands mockingly, quizzically, to the house. "Good-bye,
house! Good-bye, house!"
They were saved now. They could not be caught now on their surreptitious
honeymoon. And their spirits went even higher.
"I thought you said Mimi would be waiting for us?" Olive Two remarked.
Edward Coe shrugged his shoulders. "Probably overslept herself! Or she
may have got tired of waiting. I told her six o'clock."
On the whole Olive Two was relieved that Mimi was invisible.
"It wouldn't really matter if she _did_ split on us, would it?" said the
"Not a bit," the bridegroom agreed. Now that they had safely left the
house behind them, they were both very valiant. It was as if they were
both saying: "Who cares?" The bridegroom's mood was entirely different
from his sombre apprehensiveness of the previous evening. And the early
sunshine on the dew-drops was magnificent.
But a couple of hundred yards further on, at a bend of the road, they
saw a little girl shading her eyes with her hand and gazing towards the
sun. She wore a short blue serge frock, and she had long restless legs,
and the word _Formidable_ was on her forehead, and her eyes were all
screwed up in the strong sunshine. And in her hand were flowers.
"There she is, after all!" said Edward, quickly.
Olive Two nodded. Olive Two also blushed, for Mimi was the first person
acquainted with her to see her after her marriage. She blushed because
she was now a married woman.
Mimi, who with much prudence had managed so that the meeting should not
occur exactly in front of the house, came towards the carriage. The pony
was walking up a slope. She bounded forward with her childish grace and
with the awkwardness of her long legs, and her hair loose in the breeze,
and she laughed nervously.
"Good morning, good morning," she cried. "Shall I jump on the step? Then
the horse won't have to stop."
And she jumped lightly on to the step and giggled, still nervously,
looking first at the bridegroom and then at the bride. The bridegroom
held her securely by the shoulder.
"Well, Mimi," said Olive Two, whose shyness vanished in an instant
before the shyness of the child. "This _is_ nice of you."
The two women kissed. But Mimi did not offer her cheek to the
bridegroom. He and she simply shook hands as well as they could with a
due regard for Mimi's firmness on the step.
"And who woke you up, eh?" Edward Coe demanded.
"Nobody," said Mimi; "I got up by myself, and," turning to Olive Two,
"I've made this bouquet for you, auntie. There aren't any flowers in the
fields. But I got the chrysanthemum out of the greenhouse, and put some
bits of ferns and things round it. You must excuse it being tied up with
She offered the bouquet diffidently, and Olive Two accepted it with a
"Well," said Mimi, "I don't think I'd better go any further, had I?"
There was another kiss and hand-shaking, and the next moment Mimi was
standing in the road and waving a little crumpled handkerchief to the
receding victoria, and the bride and bridegroom were cricking their
necks to respond. She waved until the carriage was out of sight, and
then she stood moveless, a blue and white spot on the green landscape,
with the morning sun and the sea behind her.
"Exactly like a little woman, isn't she?" said Edward Coe, enchanted by
"Exactly!" Olive Two agreed. "Nice little thing! But how tired and
unwell she looks! They did well to bring her away."
"Oh!" said Edward Coe, "she probably didn't sleep well because she was
afraid of oversleeping herself. She looked perfectly all right
THE SUPREME ILLUSION
Perhaps it was because I was in a state of excited annoyance that I did
not recognize him until he came right across the large hall of the hotel
and put his hand on my shoulder.
I had arrived in Paris that afternoon, and driven to that nice,
reasonable little hotel which we all know, and whose name we all give in
confidence to all our friends; and there was no room in that hotel. Nor
in seven other haughtily-managed hotels that I visited! A kind of
archduke, who guarded the last of the seven against possible customers,
deigned to inform me that the season was at its fullest, half London
being as usual in Paris, and that the only central hotels where I had a
chance of reception were those monstrosities the Grand and the Hotel
Terminus at the Gare St Lazare. I chose the latter, and was accorded
room 973 in the roof.
I thought my exasperations were over. But no! A magnificent porter
within the gate had just consented to get my luggage off the cab, and
was in the act of beginning to do so, when a savagely-dressed, ugly and
ageing woman, followed by a maid, rushed neurotically down the steps and
called him away to hold a parcel. He obeyed! At the same instant the
barbaric and repulsive creature's automobile, about as large as a
railway carriage, drove up and forced my frail cab down the street. I
had to wait, humiliated and helpless, the taximeter of my cab
industriously adding penny to penny, while that offensive hag installed
herself, with the help of the maid, the porter and two page-boys, in her
enormous vehicle. I should not have minded had she been young and
pretty. If she had been young and pretty she would have had the right to
be rude and domineering. But she was neither young nor pretty.
Conceivably she had once been young; pretty she could never have been.
And her eyes were hard--hard.
Hence my state of excited annoyance.
"Hullo! How goes it?" The perfect colloquial English was gently murmured
at me with a French accent as the gentle hand patted my shoulder.
"Why," I said, cast violently out of a disagreeable excitement into an
agreeable one, "I do believe you are Boissy Minor!"
I had not seen him for nearly twenty years, but I recognized in that
soft and melancholy Jewish face, with the soft moustache and the soft
beard, the wistful features of the boy of fifteen who had been my
companion at an "international" school (a clever invention for
inflicting exile upon patriots) with branches at Hastings, Dresden and
Soon I was telling him, not without satisfaction, that, being a dramatic
critic, and attached to a London daily paper which had decided to
flatter its readers by giving special criticisms of the more important
new French plays, I had come to Paris for the production of _Notre Dame
de la Lune_ at the Vaudeville.
And as I told him the idea occurred to me for positively the first time:
"By the way, I suppose you aren't any relation of Octave Boissy?"
I rather hoped he was; for after all, say what you like, there is a
certain pleasure in feeling that you have been to school with even a
relative of so tremendous a European celebrity as Octave Boissy--the man
who made a million and a half francs with his second play, which was
nevertheless quite a good play. All the walls of Paris were shouting his
"I'm the johnny himself," he replied with timidity, naively proud of his
I did not give an astounded _No_! An astounded _No_! would have been
rude. Still, my fear is that I failed to conceal entirely my amazement.
I had to fight desperately against the natural human tendency to assume
that no boy with whom one has been to school can have developed into a
"Really!" I remarked, as calmly as I could, and added a shocking lie:
"Well, I'm not surprised!" And at the same time I could hear myself
saying a few days later at the office of my paper: "I met Octave Boissy
in Paris. Went to school with him, you know."
"You'd forgotten my Christian name, probably," he said.
"No, I hadn't," I answered. "Your Christian name was Minor. You never
had any other!" He smiled kindly. "But what on earth are you doing
Octave Boissy was a very wealthy man. He even looked a very wealthy man.
He was one of the darlings of success and of an absurdly luxurious
civilization. And he seemed singularly out of place in the vast, banal
foyer of the Hotel Terminus, among the shifting, bustling crowd of
utterly ordinary, bourgeois, moderately well-off tourists and travellers
and needy touts. He ought at least to have been in a very select private
room at the Meurice or the Bristol, if in any hotel at all!
"The fact is, I'm neurasthenic," he said simply, just as if he had been
saying, "The fact is, I've got a wooden leg."
"Oh!" I laughed, determined to treat him as Boissy Minor, and not as
"I have a morbid horror of walking in the open air. And yet I cannot
bear being in a small enclosed space, especially when it's moving. This
is extremely inconvenient. _Mais que veux-tu?... Suis comme ca!_"
"_Je te plains_" I put in, so as to return his familiar and flattering
"I was strongly advised to go and stay in the country," he went on, with
the same serious, wistful simplicity, "and so I ordered a special saloon
carriage on the railway, so as to have as much breathing room as
possible; and I ventured from my house to this station in an auto. I
thought I could surely manage that. But I couldn't! I had a terrible
crisis on arriving at the station, and I had to sit on a luggage-truck
for four hours. I couldn't have persuaded myself to get into the saloon
carriage for a fortune! I couldn't go back home in the auto! I couldn't
walk! So I stepped into the hotel. I've been here ever since."
"But when was this?"
"Three months ago. My doctors say that in another six weeks I shall be
sufficiently recovered to leave. It is a most distressing malady. _Mais
que veux-tu?_ I have a suite in the hotel and my own servants. I walk
out here into the hall because it's so large. The hotel people do the
best they can, but of course--" He threw up his hands. His resigned,
gentle smile was at once comic and tragic to me.
"But do you mean to say you couldn't walk out of that door and go home?"
"Daren't!" he said, with finality. "Come to my rooms, will you, and have
A little later his own valet served us with tea in a large private
drawing-room on the sixth or seventh floor, to reach which we had
climbed a thousand and one stairs; it was impossible for Octave Boissy
to use the lift, as he was convinced that he would die in it if he took
such a liberty with himself. The room was hung with modern pictures,
such as had certainly never been seen in any hotel before. Many
knick-knacks and embroideries were also obviously foreign to the hotel.
"But how have you managed to attend the rehearsals of the new play?" I
"Oh!" said he, languidly, "I never attend any rehearsals of my plays.
Mademoiselle Lemonnier sees to all that."
"She takes the leading part in this play, doesn't she, according to the
"She takes the leading part in all my plays," said he.
"A first-class artiste, no doubt? I've never seen her act."
"Neither have I!" said Octave Boissy. And as I now yielded frankly to my
astonishment, he added: "You see, I am not interested in the theatre.
Not only have I never attended a rehearsal, but I have never seen a
performance of any of my plays. Don't you remember that it was
engineering, above all else, that attracted me? I have a truly wonderful
engineering shop in the basement of my house in the Avenue du Bois. I
should very much have liked you to see it; but you comprehend, don't
you, that I'm just as much cut off from the Avenue du Bois as I am from
Timbuctoo. My malady is the most exasperating of all maladies."
"Well, Boissy Minor," I observed, "I suppose it has occurred to you that
your case is calculated to excite wonder in the simple breast of a
He laughed, and I was glad that I had had the courage to reduce him
definitely to the rank of Boissy Minor.
"And not only in the breast of an Englishman!" he said. "_Mais que
veux-tu?_ One must live."
"But I should have thought you could have made a comfortable living out
of engineering. In England consulting engineers are princes."
"And engineering might have cured your neurasthenia, if you had taken it
in sufficiently large quantities."
"It would," he agreed quietly.
"Then why the theatre, seeing that the theatre doesn't interest you?"
"In order to live," he replied. "And when I say 'live,' I mean _live_.
It is not a question of money, it is a question of _living_."
"But as you never go near the theatre--"
"I write solely for Blanche Lemonnier," he said. I was at a loss.
Perceiving this, he continued intimately: "Surely you know of my
admiration for Blanche Lemonnier?"
I shook my head.
"I have never even heard of Blanche Lemonnier, save in connection with
your plays," I said.
"She is only known in connection with my plays," he answered. "When I
met her, a dozen years ago, she was touring the provinces, playing small
parts in third-rate companies. I asked her what was her greatest
ambition, and she said that it was to be applauded as a star on the
Paris stage. I told her that I would satisfy her ambition, and that when
I had done so I hoped she would satisfy mine. That was how I began to
write plays. That was my sole reason. It is the sole reason why I keep
on writing them. If she had desired to be a figure in Society I should
have gone into politics."
"I am getting very anxious to see this lady," I said. "I feel as if I
can scarcely wait till to-night."
"She will probably be here in a few minutes," said he.
"But how did you do it?" I asked. "What was your plan of campaign?"
"After the success of my first play I wrote the second specially for
her, and I imposed her on the management. I made her a condition. The
management kicked, but I was in a position to insist. I insisted."
"It sounds simple." I laughed uneasily.
"If you are a dramatic critic," he said, "you will guess that it was not
at first quite so simple as it sounds. Of course it is simple enough
now. Blanche Lemonnier is now completely identified with my plays. She
is as well known as nearly any actress in Paris. She has the glory she
desired." He smiled curiously. "Her ambition is satisfied--so is mine."
"Well," I said, "I've never been so interested in any play before. And I
shall expect Mademoiselle Lemonnier to be magnificent."
"Don't expect too much," he returned calmly. "Blanche's acting is not
admired by everybody. And I cannot answer for her powers, as I've never
seen her at work."
"It's that that's so extraordinary!"
"Not a bit! I could not bear to see her on the stage. I hate the idea of
her acting in public. But it is her wish. And after all, it is not the
actress that concerns me. It is the woman. It is the woman alone who
makes my life worth living. So long as she exists and is kind to me my
neurasthenia is a matter of indifference, and I do not even trouble
He tried to laugh away the seriousness of his tone, but he did not quite
succeed. Hitherto I had been amused at his singular plight and his
fatalistic acceptance of it. But now I was touched.
"I'm talking very freely to you," he said.
"My dear fellow," I burst out, "do let me see her portrait."
He shook his head.
"Unfortunately her portrait is all over Paris. She likes it so. But I
prefer to have no portrait myself. My feeling is--"
At that moment the valet opened the door and we heard vivacious voices
in the corridor.
"She is here," said Octave Boissy, in a whisper suddenly dramatic. He
stood up; I also. His expression had profoundly changed. He controlled
his gestures and his attitude, but he could not control his eye. And
when I saw that glance I understood what he meant by "living." I
understood that, for him, neither fame nor artistic achievement nor
wealth had any value in his life. His life consisted in one thing only.
"_Eh bien, Blanche!_" he murmured amorously.
Blanche Lemonnier invaded the room with arrogance. She was the odious
creature whose departure in her automobile had so upset my arrival.
THE LETTER AND THE LIE
As he hurried from his brougham through the sombre hall to his study,
leaving his secretary far in the rear, he had already composed the first
sentence of his address to the United Chambers of Commerce of the Five
Towns; his mind was full of it; he sat down at once to his vast desk,
impatient to begin dictating. Then it was that he perceived the letter,
lodged prominently against the gold and onyx inkstand given to him on
his marriage by the Prince and Princess of Wales. The envelope was
imperfectly fastened, or not fastened at all, and the flap came apart as
he fingered it nervously.
"Dear Cloud,--This is to say good-bye, finally--"
He stopped. Fear took him at the heart, as though he had been suddenly
told by a physician that he must submit to an operation endangering his
life. And he skipped feverishly over the four pages to the signature,
"Yours sincerely, Gertrude."
The secretary entered.
"I must write one or two private letters first," he said to the
secretary. "Leave me. I'll ring."
"Yes, sir. Shall I take your overcoat?"
A discreet closing of the door.
"--finally. I can't stand it any longer. Cloud, I'm gone to Italy. I
shall use the villa at Florence, and trust you to leave me alone. You
must tell our friends. You can start with the Bargraves to-night. I'm
sure they'll agree with me it's for the best--"
It seemed to him that this letter was very like the sort of letter that
gets read in the Divorce Court and printed in the papers afterwards; and
he felt sick.
"--for the best. Everybody will know in a day or two, and then in
another day or two the affair will be forgotten. It's difficult to write
naturally under the circumstances, so all I'll say is that we aren't
suited to each other, Cloud. Ten years of marriage has amply proved
that, though I knew it six--seven--years ago. You haven't guessed that
you've been killing me all these years; but it is so--"
Killing her! He flushed with anger, with indignation, with innocence,
with guilt--with Heaven knew what!
"--it is so. _You've_ been living _your_ life. But what about me? In
five more years I shall be old, and I haven't begun to live. I can't
_stand_ it any longer. I can't stand this awful Five Towns district--"
Had he not urged her many a time to run up to South Audley Street for a
change, and leave him to continue his work? Nobody wanted her to be
always in Staffordshire!
"--and I can't stand _you_. That's the brutal truth. You've got on my
nerves, my poor boy, with your hurry, and your philanthropy, and your
commerce, and your seriousness. My poor nerves! And you've been too busy
to notice it. You fancied I should be content if you made love to me
absent-mindedly, _en passant_, between a political dinner and a bishop's
He flinched. She had stung him.
"I sting you--"
No! And he straightened himself, biting his lips!
"--I sting you! I'm rude! I'm inexcusable! People don't say these
things, not even hysterical wives to impeccable husbands, eh? I admit
it. But I was bound to tell you. You're a serious person, Cloud, and
I'm not. Still, we were both born as we are, and I've just as much
right to be unserious as you have to be serious. That's what you've
never realized. You aren't better than me; you're only different from
me. It is unfortunate that there are some aspects of the truth that you
are incapable of grasping. However, after this morning's scene--"
Scene? What scene? He remembered no scene, except that he had asked her
not to interrupt him while he was reading his letters, had asked her
quite politely, and she had left the breakfast-table. He thought she had
left because she had finished. He hadn't a notion--what nonsense!
"--this morning's scene, I decided not to 'interrupt' you any more--"
Yes. There was the word he had used--how childish she was!
"--any more in the contemplation of those aspects of the truth which you
_are_ capable of grasping. Good-bye! You're an honest man, and a
straight man, and very conscientious, and very clever, and I expect
you're doing a lot of good in the world. But your responsibilities are
too much for you. I relieve you of one, quite a minor one--your wife.
You don't want a wife. What you want is a doll that you can wind up once
a fortnight to say 'Good-morning, dear,' and 'Good-night, dear.' I think
I can manage without a husband for a very long time. I'm not so bitter
as you might guess from this letter, Cloud. But I want you thoroughly to
comprehend that it's finished between us. You can do what you like.
People can say what they like. I've had enough. I'll pay any price for
freedom. Good luck. Best wishes. I would write this letter afresh if I
thought I could do a better one.--Yours sincerely, Gertrude."
He dropped the letter, picked it up and read it again and then folded it
in his accustomed tidy manner and replaced it in the envelope. He sat
down and propped the letter against the inkstand and stared at the
address in her careless hand: "The Right Honourable Sir Cloud Malpas,
Baronet." She had written the address in full like that as a last stroke
of sarcasm. And she had not even put "Private."
He was dizzy, nearly stunned; his head rang.
Then he rose and went to the window. The high hill on which stood Malpas
Manor--the famous Rat Edge--fell away gradually to the south, and in the
distance below him, miles off, the black smoke of the Five Towns loomed
above the yellow fires of blast-furnaces. He was the demi-god of the
district, a greater landowner than even the Earl of Chell, a model
landlord, a model employer of four thousand men, a model proprietor of
seven pits and two iron foundries, a philanthropist, a religionist, the
ornamental mayor of Knype, chairman of a Board of Guardians, governor of
hospitals, president of Football Association--in short, Sir Cloud, son
of Sir Cloud and grandson of Sir Cloud.
He stared dreamily at his dominion. Scandal, then, was to touch him with
her smirching finger, him the spotless! Gertrude had fled. He had ruined
Gertrude's life! Had he? With his heavy and severe conscientiousness he
asked himself whether he was to blame in her regard. Yes, he thought he
was to blame. It stood to reason that he was to blame. Women, especially
such as Gertrude, proud, passionate, reserved, don't do these things for
With a sigh he passed into his dressing-room and dropped on to a sofa.
She would be inflexible--he knew her. His mind dwelt on the beautiful
first days of their marriage, the tenderness and the dream! And now--!
He heard footsteps in the study; the door was opened! It was Gertrude!
He could see her in the dusk. She had returned! Why? She tripped to the
desk, leaned forward and snatched at the letter. Evidently she did not
know that he was in the house and had read it.
The tension was too painful. A sigh broke from him, as it were of
"Who's there?" she cried, in a startled voice. "Is that you, Cloud?"
"Yes," he breathed.
"But you're home very early!" Her voice shook.
"I'm not well, Gertrude," he replied. "I'm tired. I came in here to lie
down. Can't you do something for my head? I must have a holiday."
He heard her crunch up the letter, and then she hastened to him in the
"My poor Cloud!" she said, bending over him in the mature elegance of
her thirty years. He noticed her travelling costume. "Some eau de
He nodded weakly.
"We'll go away for a holiday," he said, later, as she bathed his
The touch of her hands on his temples reminded him of forgotten
caresses. And he did really feel as though, within a quarter of an hour,
he had been through a long and dreadful illness and was now
"Then you think that after starting she thought better of it?" said Lord
Bargrave after dinner that night. "And came back?"
Lord Bargrave was Gertrude's cousin, and he and his wife sometimes came
over from Shropshire for a week-end. He sat with Sir Cloud in the
smoking-room; a man with greying hair and a youngish, equable face.
"Yes, Harry, that was it. You see, I'd just happened to put the letter
exactly where I found it. She's no notion that I've seen it."
"She's a thundering good actress!" observed Lord Bargrave, sipping some
whisky. "I knew something was up at dinner, but I didn't know it from
_her_: I knew it from you."
Sir Cloud smiled sadly.
"Well, you see, I'm supposed to be ill--at least, to be not well."
"You'd best take her away at once," said Lord Bargrave. "And don't do it
clumsily. Say you'll go away for a few days, and then gradually lengthen
it out. She mentioned Italy, you say. Well, let it be Italy. Clear out
for six months."
"But my work here?"
"D--n your work here!" said Lord Bargrave. "Do you suppose you're
indispensable here? Do you suppose the Five Towns can't manage without
you? Our caste is decayed, my boy, and silly fools like you try to
lengthen out the miserable last days of its importance by giving
yourselves airs in industrial districts! Your conscience tells you that
what the demagogues say is true--we _are_ rotters on the face of the
earth, we _are_ mediaeval; and you try to drown your conscience in the
noise of philanthropic speeches. There isn't a sensible working-man in
the Five Towns who doesn't, at the bottom of his heart, assess you at
your true value--as nothing but a man with a hobby, and plenty of time
and money to ride it."
"I do not agree with you," Sir Cloud said stiffly.
"Yes, you do," said Lord Bargrave. "At the same time I admire you,
Cloud. I'm not built the same way myself, but I admire you--except in
the matter of Gertrude. There you've been wrong--of course from the
highest motives: which makes it all the worse. A man oughtn't to put
hobbies above the wife of his bosom. And, besides, she's one of _us_.
So take her away and stay away and make love to her."
"Suppose I do? Suppose I try? I must tell her!"
"Tell her what?"
"That I read the letter. I acted a lie to her this afternoon. I can't
let that lie stand between us. It would not be right."
Lord Bargrave sprang up.
"Cloud," he cried. "For heaven's sake, don't be an infernal ass. Here
you've escaped a domestic catastrophe of the first magnitude by a
miracle. You've made a sort of peace with Gertrude. She's come to her
senses. And now you want to mess up the whole show by the act of an
idiot! What if you did act a lie to her this afternoon? A very good
thing! The most sensible thing you've done for years! Let the lie stand
between you. Look at it carefully every morning when you awake. It will
help you to avoid repeating in the future the high-minded errors of the
And in Lady Bargrave's dressing-room that night Gertrude was confiding
in Lady Bargrave.
"Yes," she said, "Cloud must have come in within five minutes of my
leaving--two hours earlier than he was expected. Fortunately he went
straight to his dressing-room. Or was it unfortunately? I was half-way
to the station when it occurred to me that I hadn't fastened the
envelope! You see, I was naturally in an awfully nervous state, Minnie.
So I told Collins to turn back. Fuge, our new butler, is of an extremely
curious disposition, and I couldn't bear the idea of him prying about
and perhaps reading that letter before Cloud got it. And just as I was
picking up the letter to fasten it I heard Cloud in the next room. Oh! I
never felt so queer in all my life! The poor boy was quite unwell. I
screwed up the letter and went to him. What else could I do? And really
he was so tired and white--well, it moved me! It moved me. And when he
spoke about going away I suddenly thought: 'Why not try to make a new
start with him?' After all ..."
There was a pause.
"What did you say in the letter?" Lady Bargrave demanded. "How did you
"I'll read it to you," said Gertrude, and she took the letter from her
corsage and began to read it. She got as far as "I can't stand this
awful Five Towns district," and then she stopped.
"Well, go on," Lady Bargrave encouraged her.
"No," said Gertrude, and she put the letter in the fire. "The fact is,"
she said, going to Lady Bargrave's chair, "it was too cruel. I hadn't
realized.... I must have been very worked-up.... One does work oneself
up.... Things seem a little different now...." She glanced at her
"Why, Gertrude, you're crying, dearest!"
"What a chance it was!" murmured Gertrude, in her tears. "What a chance!
Because, you know, if he _had_ once read it I would never have gone back
on it. I'm that sort of woman. But as it is, there's a sort of hope of a
sort of happiness, isn't there?"
"Gertrude!" It was Sir Cloud's voice, gentle and tender, outside the
"Mercy on us!" exclaimed Lady Bargrave. "It's half-past one. Bargrave
will have been asleep long since."
Gertrude kissed her in silence, opened the door, and left her.
When I was dying I had no fear. I was simply indifferent, partly, no
doubt, through exhaustion caused by my long illness. It was a warm
evening in August. We ought to have been at Blackpool, of course, but we
were in my house in Trafalgar Road, and the tramcars between Hanley and
Bursley were shaking the house just as usual. Perhaps not quite as
usual; for during my illness I had noticed that a sort of tiredness, a
soft, nice feeling, seems to come over everything at sunset of a hot
summer's day. This universal change affected even the tramcars, so that
they rolled up and down the hill more gently. Or it may have been merely
my imagination. Through the open windows I could see, dimly, the smoke
of the Cauldon Bar Iron Works slowly crossing the sky in front of the
sunset. Margaret sat in my grandfather's oak chair by the gas-stove.
There was only Margaret, besides the servant, in the house; the nurse
had been obliged to go back to Pirehill Infirmary for the night. I don't
know why. Moreover, it didn't matter.
[Footnote A: Some years ago the editor of _Black and White_ commissioned
me to write a story for his Christmas Number. I wrote this story. He
expressed a deep personal admiration for it, but said positively that he
would not dare to offer it to his readers. I withdrew the story, and
gave him instead a frolic tale about a dentist. (See page 136.)
Afterwards, I was glad that I had withdrawn the story, for I perceived
that its theme could only be treated adequately in a novel, I
accordingly wrote the novel, which was duly published under the same
I began running my extraordinarily white fingers along the edge of the
sheet. I was doing this quite mechanically when I noticed a look of
alarm in Margaret's face, and I vaguely remembered that playing with the
edge of the sheet was supposed to be a trick of the dying. So I stopped,
more for Margaret's sake than for anything else. I could not move my
head much, in fact scarcely at all; hence it was difficult for me to
keep my eyes on objects that were not in my line of vision as I lay
straight on my pillows. Thus my eyes soon left Margaret's. I forgot her.
I thought about nothing. Then she came over to the bed, and looked at
me, and I smiled at her, very feebly. She smiled in return. She appeared
to me to be exceedingly strong and healthy. Six weeks before I had been
the strong and healthy one--I was in my prime, forty, and had a
tremendous appetite for business--and I had always regarded her as
fragile and delicate; and now she could have crushed me without effort!
I had an unreasonable, instinctive feeling of shame at being so weak
compared to her. I knew that I was leaving her badly off; we were both
good spenders, and all my spare profits had gone into the manufactory;
but I did not trouble about that. I was almost quite callous about that.
I thought to myself, in a confused way: "Anyhow, I shan't be here to see
it, and she'll worry through somehow!" Nor did I object to dying. It may
be imagined that I resented death at so early an age, and being cut off
in my career, and prevented from getting the full benefit of the new
china-firing oven that I had patented. Not at all! It may be imagined
that I was preoccupied with a future life, and thinking that possibly we
had given up going to chapel without sufficient reason. No! I just lay
there, submitting like a person without will or desires to the nursing
of my wife, which was all of it accurately timed by the clock.
I just lay there and watched the gradual changing of the sky, and,
faintly, heard clocks striking and the quiet swish of my wife's dress.
Once my ear would have caught the ticking of our black marble clock on
the mantelpiece; but not now--it was lost to me. I watched the gradual
changing of the sky, until the blue of the sky had darkened so that the
blackness of the smoke was merged in it. But to the left there appeared
a faint reddish glare, which showed where the furnaces were; this glare
had been invisible in daylight. I watched all that, and I waited
patiently for the last trace of silver to vanish from a high part of the
sky above where the sunset had been--and it would not. I would shut my
eyes for an age, and then open them again, and the silver was always in
the sky. The cars kept rumbling up the hill and bumping down the hill.
And there was still that soft, languid feeling over everything. And all
the heat of the day remained. Sometimes a waft of hot air moved the
white curtains. Margaret ate something off a plate. The servant stole
in. Margaret gave a gesture as though to indicate that I was asleep. But
I was not asleep. The servant went off. Twice I restrained my thin,
moist hands from playing with the edge of the sheet. Then I closed my
eyes with a kind of definite closing, as if finally admitting that I was
too exhausted to keep them open.
Difficult to describe my next conscious sensations, when I found I was
not in the bed! I have never described them before. You will understand
why I've never described them to my wife. I meant never to describe them
to anyone. But as you came all the way from London, Mr Myers, and seem
to understand all this sort of thing, I've made up my mind to tell you
for what it's worth. Yes, what you say about the difficulty of sticking
to the exact truth is quite correct. I feel it. Still, I don't think I
over-flatter myself in saying that I am a more than ordinarily truthful
Well, I was looking at the bed. I was not in the bed. I can't be
precisely sure where I was standing, but I think it was between the two
windows, half behind the crimson curtains. Anyhow, I must have been near
the windows, or I couldn't have seen the foot of the bed and the couch
that is there. I could most distinctly hear Cauldon Church clock, more
than two miles away, strike two. I was cold. Margaret was leaning over
the bed, and staring at a face that lay on the pillows. At first it did
not occur to me that this face on the pillows was my face. I had to
reason out that fact. When I had reasoned it out I tried to speak to
Margaret and tell her that she was making a mistake, gazing at that
thing there on the pillows, and that the real one was standing in the
cold by the windows. I could not speak. Then I tried to attract her
attention in other ways; but I could do nothing. Once she turned
sharply, as if startled, and looked straight at me. I strove more
frantically than ever to make signs to her; but no, I could not.
Seemingly she did not see.
Then I thought: "I'm dead! This is being dead! I've died!"
Margaret ran to the dressing-table and picked up her hand-mirror. She
rubbed it carefully on the counterpane, and then held it to the mouth
and nostrils of that face on the pillows, and then examined it under the
gas. She was very agitated; the whole of her demeanour had changed; I
scarcely recognized her. I could not help thinking that she was mad. She
put down the mirror, glanced at the clock, even glanced out of the
window (she was much closer to me than I am now to you), and then flew
back to the bed. She seized the scissors that were hanging from her
girdle, and cut a hole in the top pillow, and drew from it a flock of
down, which she carefully placed on the lips of that face. The down did
not even tremble. Then she bared the breast of the body on the bed, and
laid her ear upon the region of the heart; I could see her eyes blinking
as she listened intensely. After she had listened some time she raised
her head, with a little sob, and frantically pulled the bell-rope. I
could hear the bell; we could both hear it. There was no response;
nothing but a fearful silence. Margaret, catching her breath, rushed out
of the room. I was sick with the most awful disgust that I could not
force her to see where I was. I had been helpless before, when I lay in
the bed, but I was far more completely helpless now. Talk about the babe
She came back with the servant, and the two women stood on either side
of the bed, gazing at that body. The servant whispered:
"They do say that if you put a full glass of water on the chest you can
tell for sure."
Margaret hesitated. However, the servant began to fill a glass of water
on the washstand, and they poised it on the chest of that body. Not the
slightest vibration troubled its surface. I was--not angry; no,
tremendously disgusted is the only term I can use--at all this flummery
with that body on the bed. It was shocking to me that they should
confuse that body with me. I thought them silly, wilfully silly. I
thought their behaviour monstrously blind. There was I, the master of
the house, standing chilled between the windows, and neither Margaret
nor the servant would take the least notice of me!
The servant said:
"I'd better run for the doctor, ma'am." And she lifted off the glass.
"What use can the doctor be?" Margaret asked. "Only spoil the poor man's
night for nothing. And he's had a lot of bad nights lately. He told me
The servant said:
"Yes, mum.. But I'd better run for him. That's what doctors is for."
As soon as the front-door banged on the excited servant, my wife fell on
that body with a loud cry, and stroked it passionately, and I could see
her tears dropping on it. She wept without any restraint. She loved me
very much; I knew that. But the fact that she loved me only increased my
horror that she should be caressing that body, which was not me at all,
which had nothing whatever to do with me, which was loathsome, vile, and
as insensible as a log to the expressions of her love. She was not
weeping over me. She was weeping over an abomination. She was all wrong,
all tragically wrong, and I could not set her right. Her woe desolated
me. We had been happy together for sixteen years. Her error desolated
me, as a painful farce. But a slow, horrible change in my own
consciousness made me forget her grief in my own increasing misery.
I do not suppose that the feeling which came over me is capable of being
described in human language. It can only be hinted at, not truly
conveyed. If I say that I was utterly overcome by the sensation of being
_cut off from everything_, I shall perhaps not impress you very much
with a notion of my terror. But I do not see how I can better express
myself. No one who has not been through what I have been through--it is
a pretty awful thought that all who die do probably go through it--can
possibly understand the feeling of acute and frightful loneliness that
possessed me as I stood near the windows, that wrapped me up and
enveloped me, as it were, in an icy sheet. A few people in England are
possibly in my case--they have _been_, and they have returned, like me.
They will understand, and only they. I was solitary in the universe. I
was invisible, and I was forgotten. There was my poor wife lavishing her
immense sorrow on that body on the bed, which had ceased to have any
connection with me, which was emphatically not me, and to which I felt
the strongest repugnance. I was even jealous of that lifeless,
unresponsive, decaying mass. You cannot guess how I tried to yell to my
wife to come to me and warm me with her companionship and her
sympathy--and I could accomplish nothing, not the faintest whisper.
I had no home, no shelter, no place in the world, no share in life. I
was cast out. The changeless purposes of nature had ejected me from
humanity. It was as though humanity had been a fortified city and the
gates had been shut on me, and I was wandering round and round the
unscalable smooth walls, and beating against their stone with my hands.
That is a good simile, except that I could not move. Of course if I
could have moved I should have gone to my wife. But I could not move. To
be quite exact, I could move very slightly, perhaps about an inch or two
inches, and in any direction, up or down, to left or right, backwards or
forwards; this by a great straining, fatiguing effort. I was stuck there
on the surface of the world, desolate and undone. It was the most cruel
situation that you can imagine; far worse, I think, than any conceivable
physical torture. I am perfectly sure that I would have exchanged my
state, then, for the state of no matter what human being, the most
agonized martyr, the foulest criminal. I would have given anything, made
any sacrifice, to be once more within the human pale, to feel once more
that human life was not going on without me.
There was a knocking below. My wife left that body on the bed, and came
to the window and put her head out into the nocturnal, gas-lit silence
of Trafalgar Road. She was within a foot of me--and I could do nothing.
She whispered: "Is that you, Mary?"
The voice of the servant came: "Yes, mum. The doctor's been called away
to a case. He's not likely to be back before five o'clock."
My wife said, with sad indifference: "It doesn't matter now. I'll let
She went from the room. I heard the opening and shutting of the door.
Then both women returned into the room, and talked in low voices.
My wife said: "As soon as it's light you must ..." She stopped and
corrected herself. "No, the nurse will be back at seven o'clock. She
said she would. She will attend to all that. Mary, go and get a little
rest, if you can."
"Aren't you going to put the pennies on his eyes, mum?" the servant
"Ought I?" said my wife. "I don't know much about these things."
"Oh, yes, mum. And tie his jaw up," the servant said.
_His_ eyes! _His_ jaw! I was terribly angry, in my desolation. But it
was a futile anger, though it raged through me like a storm. Could they
not understand, would they never understand, that they were grotesquely
deceived? How much longer would they continue to fuss over that body on
the bed while I, _I_, the person whom they were supposed to be sorry
for, suffered and trembled in dire need just behind them?
A ridiculous bother over pennies! There was only one penny in the house,
they decided, after searching. I knew the exact whereabouts of two
shillings worth of copper, rolled in paper in my desk in the
dining-room. It had been there for many weeks; I had brought it home
one day from the works. But they did not know. I wanted to tell them, so
as to end the awful exacerbation of my nerves. But of course I could
not. In spite of Mary's superstitious protest, my wife put a penny on
one eye and half-a-crown on the other. Mary seemed to regard this as a
desecration, or at best as unlucky. Then they bound up the jaw of that
body with one of my handkerchiefs. I thought I had never seen anything
more wantonly absurd. Their trouble in straightening the arms--the legs
were quite straight--infuriated me. I wanted to weep in my tragic
vexation. It seemed as though tears would ease me. But I could not weep.
The servant said: "You'd better come away now, mum, and rest on the sofa
in the drawing-room."
Margaret, with red-bordered, glittering eyes, answered, staring all the
while at that body: "No, Mary. It's no use. I can't leave him. I won't
But she wasn't thinking about me at all. There I was, neglected and
shivering, near the windows; and she would not look at me!
After an interminable palaver Margaret induced the servant to leave the
room. And she sat down on the chair nearest the bed, and began to cry
again, not troubling to wipe her eyes. She sobbed, more and more loudly,
and kept touching that body. She seized my gold watch, which hung over
the bed, and which she wound up every night, and kissed it and put it
back. Her sobs continued to increase. Then the door opened quietly, and
the servant, half-undressed, crept in, and without saying a word gently
led Margaret out of the room. Margaret's last glance was at that body.
In a moment the servant returned and extinguished the gas, and departed
again, very carefully closing the door. I was now utterly abandoned.
All that had happened to me up to now was strange; but what followed was
still more strange and still less capable of being described in human
I became aware that I was gradually losing the sensation of being cut
off from intercourse, at any-rate that the sensation was losing its
painfulness. I didn't seem to care, now, whether I was neglected or not.
And to be cast out from humanity grew into a matter of indifference to
me. I became aware, too, of the approach of a mysterious freedom. I was
not free, I could still move only an inch or so in any direction; but I
felt that a process of dissolving of bonds had begun. What manner of
bonds? I don't know. I felt--that was all. My indifference slowly passed
into a sad and deep pity for the world. The world seemed to me so
pathetic, so awry, so obstinate in its honest illusions, so silly in its
dishonest pretences. "Have I been content with _that_?" I thought,
staggered. And I was sorry for what I had been. I perceived that the
ideals of my life were tawdry, that even the best were poor little
things. And I perceived that it was the same with everyone, and that
even the greatest men, those men that I had so profoundly admired as of
another clay than mine, were as like the worst as one sheep was like
another sheep. Weep--because nature had ejected me from that petty
little world, with its ridiculous and conceited wrongness? What an idea!
Why, I said to myself, that world spends nearly the whole of its time in
moving physical things from one place to another. Change the position of
matter--that is all it does, all it thinks of. I remembered a statesman
who had referred to the London and North-Western Railway as being one of
the glories of England! Parcels! Parcels! Parcels, human, brute,
insensate! Nothing but parcel-moving! I smiled. And then I perceived
that I could understand and solve problems which had defied thousands of
years of human philosophy, problems which we on earth called
fundamental. And lo! They were not in the least fundamental, but were
trifles, as simple as Euclid. It was surprising that the solution of
them had not presented itself to me before! I thought: With one word,
one single word, I could enlighten the human race beyond all that it has
ever learned. Feeble-bodied, feeble-minded humanity!
And then I had a glimpse.... I was in the bedroom, near the windows, all
the time, but nevertheless I was nowhere, nowhere in space. I could feel
the roll of the earth as it turned lumberingly on its axis--a faint
shaking which did not affect me. Still, I was in the bedroom, near the
windows. And I had a glimpse.... The heralds of a new vitality swept
trumpeting through me, and a calm, intense, ineffable joy followed in
their train. I had a glimpse.... And my eyes were not dazzled. I yearned
and strained towards what I saw, towards the exceeding brightness of
undreamt companionships, hopes, perceptions, activities, and sorrows.
Yes, sorrows! But what noble sorrows they were that I felt awaited me
there! I strained at my mysterious bonds. It seemed that they were about
to break and that I should be winged away into other dimensions....
And then, I knew that they were tightening again, and the brightness
very slowly faded, and I lost faith in the gift of vision which
momentarily had enabled me to see the illusions and the littleness of
the world. And I was slowly, slowly drawn away from the window.... And
then I felt heavy weights on my eyes, and I could not move my jaw. I
shuddered convulsively, and a coin struck the floor and ran till it fell
flat. And the door swiftly opened....
Yes, my whole character is changed, within; though externally it may
seem the same. Externally I may seem to have resumed the affections and
the interests which occupied me before my illness and my remarkable
recovery. Yet I am different. Certainly I have lost again the strange
transcendental knowledge which was mine for a few instants. Certainly I
have descended again to the earthly level. All those magic things have
slipped away, except hope. In a sure hope, in a positive faith, I am
waiting. I am waiting for all that magic to happen to me again. I know
that the pain of loneliness, when again I shall see my own body from the
outside, will be exquisite, but--the reward! The reward! That is what is
always at the back of my mind, the source of the calm joy in which I
wait. Externally I am the successful earthenware manufacturer, happily
married, getting rich on a china-firing oven, employing a couple of
hundred workmen, etcetera, who was once given up for dead. But I am more
than that. I have seen God.
All this happened at a Martinmas Fair in Bursley, long ago in the
fifties, when everybody throughout the Five Towns pronounced Bursley
"Bosley" as a matter of course; in the tedious and tragic old times,
before it had been discovered that hell was a myth, and before the
invention of pleasure or even of half-holidays. Martinmas was in those
days a very important moment in the annual life of the town, for it was
at Martinmas that potters' wages were fixed for twelve months ahead, and
potters hired themselves out for that term at the best rate they could
get. Even to the present day the housewives reckon chronology by
Martinmas. They say, "It'll be seven years come Martinmas that Sal's
babby died o' convulsions." Or, "It was that year as it rained and
hailed all Martinmas." And many of them have no idea why it is
Martinmas, and not Midsummer or Whitsun, that is always on the tips of
The Fair was one of the two great drunken sprees of the year, the other
being the Wakes. And it was meet that it should be so, for intoxication
was a powerful aid to the signing of contracts. A sot would put his name
to anything, gloriously; and when he had signed he had signed. Thus the
beaver-hatted employers smiled at Martinmas drunkenness, and smacked it
familiarly on the back; and little boys swilled themselves into the
gutter with their elders, and felt intensely proud of the feat. These
heroic old times have gone by, never to return.
It was on the Friday before Martinmas, at dusk. In the centre of the
town, on the waste ground to the north of the "Shambles" (as the
stone-built meat market was called), and in the space between the
Shambles and the as yet unfinished new Town Hall, the showmen and the
showgirls and the showboys were titivating their booths, and cooking
their teas, and watering their horses, and polishing the brass rails of
their vans, and brushing their fancy costumes, and hammering fresh
tent-pegs into the hard ground, and lighting the first flares of the
evening, and yarning, and quarrelling, and washing--all under the sombre
purple sky, for the diversion of a small crowd of loafers, big and
little, who stood obstinately with their hands in their pockets or in
their sleeves, missing naught of the promising spectacle.
Now, in the midst of what in less than twenty-four hours would be the
Fair, was to be seen a strange and piquant sight--namely, a group of
three white-tied, broad-brimmed dissenting ministers in earnest converse
with fat Mr Snaggs, the proprietor of Snaggs's--Snaggs's being the town
theatre, a wooden erection, generally called by patrons the "Blood Tub,"
on account of its sanguinary programmes. On this occasion Mr Snaggs and
the dissenting ministers were for once in a way agreed. They all
objected to a certain feature of the Fair. It was not the roundabouts,
so crude that even an infant of to-day would despise them. It was
not the shooting-galleries, nor the cocoanut shies. It was not the
arrangements of the beersellers, which were formidably Bacchic.
It was not the boxing-booths, where adventurous youths could have
teeth knocked out and eyes smashed in free of charge. It was not the
monstrosity-booths, where misshapen and maimed creatures of both sexes
were displayed all alive and nearly nude to anybody with a penny to
spare. What Mr Snaggs and the ministers of religion objected to was the
theatre-booths, in which the mirror, more or less cracked and tarnished,
was held up to nature.
Mr Snaggs's objection was professional. He considered that he alone was
authorized to purvey drama to the town; he considered that among all
purveyors of drama he alone was respectable, the rest being upstarts,
poachers, and lewd fellows. And as the dissenting ministers gazed at Mr
Snaggs's superb moleskin waistcoat, and listened to his positive brazen
voice, they were almost convinced that the hated institution of the
theatre could be made respectable and that Mr Snaggs had so made it. At
any rate, by comparison with these flashy and flimsy booths, the Blood
Tub, rooted in the antiquity of thirty years, had a dignified, even a
reputable air--and did not Mr Snaggs give frequent performances of
Cruickshanks' _The Bottle_, a sermon against intemperance more
impressive than any sermon delivered from a pulpit in a chapel? The
dissenting ministers listened with deference as Mr Snaggs explained to
them exactly what they ought to have done, and what they had failed to
do, in order to ensure the success of their campaign against play-acting
in the Fair; a campaign which now for several years past had been
abortive--largely (it was rumoured) owing to the secret jealousy of the
Church of England.
"If ony on ye had had any gumption," Mr Snaggs was saying fearlessly to
the parsons, "ye'd ha' gone straight to th' Chief Bailiff and ye'd
ha'--Houch!" He made the peculiar exclamatory noise roughly indicated by
the last word, and spat in disgust; and without the slightest ceremony
of adieu walked ponderously away up the slope, leaving his sentence
"It is remarkable how Mr Snaggs flees from before my face," said a neat,
alert, pleasant voice from behind the three parsons. "And yet save that
in my unregenerate day I once knocked him off a stool in front of his
own theayter, I never did him harm nor wished him anything but good....
A rather small, slight man of about forty, with tiny feet and hands,
and "very quick on his pins," saluted the three parsons gravely.
"Mr Smith!" one parson stiffly inclined.
"Mr Smith!" from the second.
"Brother Smith!" from the third, who was Jock Smith's own parson, being
in charge of the Bethesda in Trafalgar Road where Jock Smith worshipped
and where he had recently begun to preach as a local preacher.
Jock Smith, herbalist, shook hands with vivacity but also with
self-consciousness. He was self-conscious because he knew himself to be
one of the chief characters and attractions of the town, because he was
well aware that wherever he went people stared at him and pointed him
out to each other. And he was half proud and half ashamed of his
Even now a little band of ragged children had wandered after him, and,
undeterred by the presence of the parsons, were repeating among
themselves, in a low audacious monotone:
He was the youngest of fourteen children, and when he was a month old
his mother took him to church to be christened. The rector was the
celebrated Rappey, sportsman, who (it is said) once pawned the church
Bible in order to get up a bear-baiting. Rappey asked the name of the
child, and was told by the mother that she had come to the end of her
knowledge of names, and would be obliged for a suggestion. Whereupon
Rappey began to cite all the most ludicrous names in the Bible, such as
Aholibamah, Kenaz, Iram, Baalhanan, Abiasaph, Amram, Mushi, Libni,
Nepheg, Abihu. And the mother laughed, shaking her head. And Rappey went
on: Shimi, Carmi, Jochebed. And at Jochebed the mother became
hysterical with laughter. "Jock-at-a-Venture," she had sniggered, and
Rappey, mischievously taking her at her word, christened the infant
Jock-at-a-Venture before she could protest; and the infant was stamped
for ever as peculiar.
He lived up to his name. He ran away twice, and after having been both a
sailor and a soldier, he returned home with the accomplishment of
flourishing a razor, and settled in Bursley as a barber. Immediately he
became the most notorious barber in the Five Towns, on account of his
gab and his fisticuffs. It was he who shaved the left side of the face
of an insulting lieutenant of dragoons (after the great riots of '45,
which two thousand military had not quelled), and then pitched him out
of the shop, soapsuds and all, and fought him to a finish in the Cock
Yard and flung him through the archway into the market-place with just
half a magnificent beard and moustache. It was he who introduced
hair-dyeing into Bursley. Hair-dyeing might have grown popular in the
town if one night, owing to some confusion with red ink, the Chairman of
the Bursley Burial Board had not emerged from Jock-at-a-Venture's with a
vermilion top-knot and been greeted on the pavement by his waiting wife
with the bitter words: "Thou foo!"
A little later Jock-at-a-Venture abandoned barbering and took up music,
for which he had always shown a mighty gift. He was really musical and
performed on both the piano and the cornet, not merely with his hands
and mouth, but with the whole of his agile expressive body. He made a
good living out of public-houses and tea-meetings, for none could play
the piano like Jock, were it hymns or were it jigs. His cornet was
employed in a band at Moorthorne, the mining village to the east of
Bursley, and on his nocturnal journeys to and from Moorthorne with the
beloved instrument he had had many a set-to with the marauding colliers
who made the road dangerous for cowards. One result of this connection
with Moorthorne was that a boxing club had been formed in Bursley, with
Jock as chief, for the upholding of Bursley's honour against visiting
Moorthorne colliers in Bursley's market-place.
Then came Jock's conversion to religion, a blazing affair, and his
abandonment of public-houses. As tea-meetings alone would not keep him,
he had started again in life, for the fifth or sixth time--as a
herbalist now. It was a vocation which suited his delicate hands and his
enthusiasm for humanity. At last, and quite lately, he had risen to be a
local preacher. His first two sermons had impassioned the congregations,
though there were critics to accuse him of theatricality. Accidents
happened to him sometimes. On this very afternoon of the Friday before
Martinmas an accident had happened to him. He had been playing the piano
at the rehearsal of the Grand Annual Evening Concert of the Bursley Male
Glee-Singers. The Bursley Male Glee-Singers, determined to beat records,
had got a soprano with a foreign name down from Manchester. On seeing
the shabby perky little man who was to accompany her songs the soprano
had had a moment of terrible misgiving. But as soon as Jock, with a
careful-careless glance at the music, which he had never seen before,
had played the first chords (with a "How's that for time, missis?"), she
was reassured. At the end of the song her enthusiasm for the musical
gifts of the local artist was such that she had sprung from the platform
and simply but cordially kissed him. She was a stout, feverish lady. He
liked a lady to be stout; and the kiss was pleasant and the compliment
enormous. But what a calamity for a local preacher with a naughty past
to be kissed in full rehearsal by a soprano from Manchester! He knew
that he had to live that kiss down, and to live down also the charge of
Here was a reason, and a very good one, why he deliberately sought the
company of parsons in the middle of the Fair-ground. He had to protect
himself against tongues.
"I don't know," said Jock-at-a-Venture to the parsons, gesturing with
his hands and twisting his small, elegant feet, "I don't know as I'm in
favour of stopping these play-acting folk from making a living; stopping
'em by force, that is."
He knew that he had said something shocking, something that when he
joined the group he had not in the least meant to say. He knew that
instead of protecting himself he was exposing himself to danger. But he
did not care. When, as now, he was carried away by an idea, he cared for
naught. And, moreover, he had the consciousness of being cleverer,
acuter, than any of these ministers of religion, than anybody in the
town! His sheer skill and resourcefulness in life had always borne him
safely through every difficulty--from a prize-fight to a soprano's
"A strange doctrine, Brother Smith!" said Jock's own pastor.
The other two hummed and hawed, and brought the tips of their fingers
"Nay!" said Jock, persuasively smiling. "'Stead o' bringing 'em to
starvation, bring 'em to the House o' God! Preach the gospel to 'em, and
then when ye've preached the gospel to 'em, happen they'll change their
ways o' their own accord. Or happen they'll put their play-acting to the
service o' God. If there's plays agen drink, why shouldna' there be
plays agen the devil, and _for_ Jesus Christ, our Blessed Redeemer?"
"Good day to you, brethren," said one of the parsons, and departed. Thus
only could he express his horror of Jock's sentiments.
In those days churches and chapels were not so empty that parsons had
to go forth beating up congregations. A pew was a privilege. And those
who did not frequent the means of grace had at any rate the grace to be
ashamed of not doing so. And, further, strolling players, in spite of
John Wesley's exhortations, were not considered salvable. The notion of
trying to rescue them from merited perdition was too fantastic to be
seriously entertained by serious Christians. Finally, the suggested
connection between Jesus Christ and a stage-play was really too
appalling! None but Jock-at-a-Venture would have been capable of such an
"I think, my friend--" began the second remaining minister.
"Look at that good woman there!" cried Jock-at-a-Venture, interrupting
him with a dramatic out-stretching of the right arm, as he pointed to a
very stout but comely dame, who, seated on a three-legged stool, was
calmly peeling potatoes in front of one of the more resplendent booths.
"Look at that face! Is there no virtue in it? Is there no hope for
salvation in it?"
"None," Jock's pastor replied mournfully. "That woman--her name is
Clowes--is notorious. She has eight children, and she has brought them
all up to her trade. I have made inquiries. The elder daughters are
actresses and married to play-actors, and even the youngest child is
taught to strut on the boards. Her troupe is the largest in the
Jock-at-a-Venture was certainly dashed by this information.
"The more reason," said he, obstinately, "for saving her!... And all
The two ministers did not want her to be saved. They liked to think of
the theatre as being beyond the pale. They remembered the time, before
they were ordained, and after, when they had hotly desired to see the
inside of a theatre and to rub shoulders with wickedness. And they took
pleasure in the knowledge that the theatre was always there, and the
wickedness thereof, and the lost souls therein. But Jock-at-a-Venture
genuinely longed, in that ecstasy of his, for the total abolition of all
forms of sin.
"And what would you do to save her, brother?" Jock's pastor inquired
"What would I do? I'd go and axe her to come to chapel Sunday, her and
hers. I'd axe her kindly, and I'd crack a joke with her. And I'd get
round her for the Lord's sake."
Both ministers sighed. The same thought was in their hearts, namely,
that brands plucked from the burning (such as Jock) had a disagreeable
tendency to carry piety, as they had carried sin, to the most ridiculous
and inconvenient lengths.
"Those are bonny potatoes, missis!"
"Ay!" The stout woman, the upper part of whose shabby dress seemed to be
subjected to considerable strains, looked at Jock carelessly, and then,
attracted perhaps by his eager face, smiled with a certain facile
"But by th' time they're cooked your supper'll be late, I'm reckoning."
"Them potatoes have naught to do with our supper," said Mrs Clowes.
"They're for to-morrow's dinner. There'll be no time for peeling
potatoes to-morrow. Kezia!" She shrilled the name.
A slim little girl showed herself between the heavy curtains of the main
tent of Mrs Clowes's caravanserai.
"Bring Sapphira, too!"
"Those yours?" asked Jock.
"They're mine," said Mrs Clowes. "And I've six more, not counting
grandchildren and sons-in-law like."
"No wonder you want a pailful of potatoes!" said Jock.
Kezia and Sapphira appeared in the gloom. They might have counted
sixteen years together. They were dirty, tousled, graceful and lovely.
"Twins," Jock suggested.
Mrs Clowes nodded. "Off with this pail, now! And mind you don't spill
the water. Here, Kezia! Take the knife. And bring me the other pail."
The children bore away the heavy pail, staggering, eagerly obedient. Mrs
Clowes lifted her mighty form from the stool, shook peelings from the
secret places of her endless apron, and calmly sat down again.
"Ye rule 'em with a rod of iron, missis," said Jock.
She smiled good-humouredly and shrugged her vast shoulders--no mean
"I keep 'em lively," she said. "There's twelve of 'em in my lot, without
th' two babbies. Someone's got to be after 'em all the time."
"And you not thirty-five, I swear!"
"Nay! Ye're wrong."
Sapphira brought the other pail, swinging it. She put it down with a
clatter of the falling handle and scurried off.
"Am I now?" Jock murmured, interested; and, as it were out of sheer
absent-mindedness, he turned the pail wrong side up, and seated himself
on it with a calm that equalled the calm of Mrs Clowes.
It was now nearly dark. The flares of the showmen were answering each
other across the Fair-ground; and presently a young man came and hung
one out above the railed platform of Mrs Clowes's booth; and Mrs Clowes
blinked. From behind the booth floated the sounds of the confused
chatter of men, girls and youngsters, together with the complaint of an
infant. A few yards away from Mrs Clowes was a truss of hay; a pony
sidled from somewhere with false innocence up to this truss, nosed it
cautiously, and then began to bite wisps from it. Occasionally a loud
but mysterious cry swept across the ground. The sky was full of mystery.
Against the sky to the west stood black and clear the silhouette of the
new Town Hall spire, a wondrous erection; and sticking out from it at
one side was the form of a gigantic angel. It was the gold angel which,
from the summit of the spire, has now watched over Bursley for half a
century, but which on that particular Friday had been lifted only
two-thirds of the way to its final home.
Jock-at-a-Venture felt deeply all the influences of the scene and of the
woman. He was one of your romantic creatures; and for him the woman was
magnificent. Her magnificence thrilled.
"And what are you going to say?" she quizzed him. "Sitting on my pail!"
Now to quiz Jock was to challenge him.
"Sitting on your pail, missis," he replied, "I'm going for to say that
you're much too handsome a woman to go down to hell in eternal
She was taken aback, but her profession had taught her the art of quick
"You belong to that Methody lot," she mildly sneered. "I thought I seed
you talking to them white-chokers."
"I do," said Jock.
"And I make no doubt you think yourself very clever."
"Well," he vouchsafed, "I can splice a rope, shave a head, cure a wart
or a boil, and tell a fine woman with any man in this town. Not to
mention boxing, as I've given up on account of my religion."
"I _was_ handsome once," said Mrs Clowes, with apparent, but not real,
inconsequence. "But I'm all run to fat, like. I've played Portia in my
time. But now it's as much as I can do to get through with Maria Martin
"Fat!" Jock protested. "Fat! I wouldn't have an ounce taken off ye for
He was so enthusiastic that Mrs Clowes blushed.
"What's this about hell-fire?" she questioned. "I often think of it--I'm
a lonely woman, and I often think of it."
"You lonely!" Jock protested again. "With all them childer?"
There was a silence.
"See thee here, missis!" he exploded, jumping up from the pail. "Ye must
come to th' Bethesda down yon, on Sunday morning, and hear the word o'
God. It'll be the making on ye."
Mrs Clowes shook her head.
"And bring yer children," he persisted.
"If it was you as was going to preach like!" she said, looking away.
"It is me as is going to preach," he answered loudly and proudly. "And
I'll preach agen any man in this town for a dollar!"
Jock was forgetting himself: an accident which often happened to him.
The Bethesda was crowded on Sunday morning; partly because it was
Martinmas Sunday, and partly because the preacher was Jock-at-a-Venture.
That Jock should have been appointed on the "plan" [rota of preachers]
to discourse in the principal local chapel of the Connexion at such an
important feast showed what extraordinary progress he had already made
in the appreciation of that small public of experts which aided the
parson in drawing up the quarterly plan. At the hands of the larger
public his reception was sure. Some sixteen hundred of the larger public
had crammed themselves into the chapel, and there was not an empty place
either on the ground floor or in the galleries. Even the "orchestra" (as
the "singing-seat" was then called) had visitors in addition to the
choir and the double-bass players. And not a window was open. At that
date it had not occurred to people that fresh air was not a menace to
existence. The whole congregation was sweltering, and rather enjoying
it; for in some strangely subtle manner perspiration seemed to be a help
to religious emotion. Scores of women were fanning themselves; and among
these was a very stout peony-faced woman of about forty in a gorgeous
yellow dress and a red-and-black bonnet, with a large boy and a small
girl under one arm, and a large boy and a small girl under the other
arm. The splendour of the group appeared somewhat at odds with the
penury of the "Free Seats," whither it had been conducted by a steward.
In the pulpit, dominating all, was Jock-at-a-Venture, who sweated like
the rest. He presented a rather noble aspect in his broadcloth, so
different from his careless, shabby week-day attire. His eye was
lighted; his arm raised in a compelling gesture. Pausing effectively, he
lifted a glass with his left hand and sipped. It was the signal that he
had arrived at his peroration. His perorations were famous. And this
morning everybody felt, and he himself knew, that all previous
perorations were to be surpassed. His subject was the wrath to come, and
the transient quality of human life on earth. "Yea," he announced, in
gradually-increasing thunder, "all shall go. And loike the baseless
fabric o' a vision, the cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces, the
solemn temples, the great globe itself--Yea, I say, all which it inherit
shall dissolve, and, like this insubstantial payjent faded, leave not a
His voice had fallen for the last words. After a dramatic silence, he
finished, in a whisper almost, and with eyebrows raised and staring gaze
directed straight at the vast woman in yellow: "We are such stuff as
drames are made on; and our little life is rounded with a sleep. May God
have mercy on us. Hymn 442."
The effect was terrific. Men sighed and women wept, in relief that the
strain was past. Jock was an orator; he wielded the orator's dominion.
Well he knew, and well they all knew, that not a professional preacher
in the Five Towns could play on a congregation as he did. For when Jock
was roused you could nigh see the waves of emotion sweeping across the
upturned faces of his hearers like waves across a wheatfield on a windy
And this morning he had been roused.
But in the vestry after the service he met enemies, in the shape and
flesh of the chapel-steward and the circuit-steward, Mr Brett and Mr
Hanks respectively. Both these important officials were local preachers,
but, unfortunately, their godliness did not protect them against the
ravages of jealousy. Neither of them could stir a congregation, nor even
fill a country chapel.
"Brother Smith," said Jabez Hanks, shutting the door of the vestry. He
was a tall man with a long, greyish beard and no moustache. "Brother
Smith, it is borne in upon me and my brother here to ask ye a question."
"Ask!" said Jock.
"Were them yer own words--about cloud-capped towers and baseless
fabrics and the like? I ask ye civilly."
"And I answer ye civilly, they were," replied Jock.
"Because I have here," said Jabez Hanks, maliciously, "Dod's _Beauties
o' Shakspere_, where I find them very same words, taken from a
stage-play called _The Tempest_."
Jock went a little pale as Jabez Hanks opened the book.
"They may be Shakspere's words too," said Jock, lightly.
"A fortnight ago, at Moorthorne Chapel, I suspected it," said Jabez.
"Suspected ye o' quoting Shakspere in our pulpits."
"And cannot a man quote in a sermon? Why, Jabez Hanks, I've heard ye
quote Matthew Henry by the fathom."
"Ye've never heard me quote a stage-play in a pulpit, Brother Smith,"
said Jabez Hanks, majestically. "And as long as I'm chapel-steward it
wunna' be tolerated in this chapel."
"Wunna it?" Jock put in defiantly.
"It's a defiling of the Lord's temple; that's what it is!" Jabez Hanks
continued. "Ye make out as ye're against stage-plays at the Fair, and
yet ye come here and mouth 'em in a Christian pulpit. _You_ agen
stage-plays! Weren't ye seen talking by the hour to one o' them trulls,
Friday night--? And weren't ye seen peeping through th' canvas last
night? And now--"
"Now what?" Jock inquired, approaching Jabez on his springy toes, and
looking up at Jabez's great height.
Jabez took breath. "Now ye bring yer fancy women into the House o' God!
You--a servant o' Christ, you--"
Jock-at-a-Venture interrupted the sentence with his daring fist, which
seemed to lift Jabez from the ground by his chin, and then to let him
fall in a heap, as though his clothes had been a sack containing loose
"A good-day to ye, Brother Brett," said Jock, reaching for his hat, and
departing with a slam of the vestry door.
He emerged at the back of the chapel and got by "back-entries" into
Aboukir Street, up which he strolled with a fine show of tranquillity,
as far as the corner of Trafalgar Road, where stood and stands the great
Dragon Hotel. The congregations of several chapels were dispersing
slowly round about this famous corner, and Jock had to salute several of
his own audience. Then suddenly he saw Mrs Clowes and her four children
enter the tap-room door of the Dragon.
He hesitated one second and followed the variegated flotilla and its
The tap-room was fairly full of both sexes. But among them Jock and Mrs
Clowes and her children were the only persons who had been to church or
"Here's preacher, mother!" Kezia whispered, blushing, to Mrs Clowes.
"Eh," said Mrs Clowes, turning very amiably. "It's never you, mester! It
was that hot in that chapel we're all on us dying of thirst.... Four
gills and a pint, please!" (This to the tapster.)
"And give me a pint," said Jock, desperately.
They all sat down familiarly. That a mother should take her children
into a public-house and give them beer, and on a Sunday of all days, and
immediately after a sermon! That a local preacher should go direct from
the vestry to the gin-palace and there drink ale with a strolling
player! These phenomena were simply and totally inconceivable! And yet
Jock was in presence of them, assisting at them, positively acting in
them! And in spite of her enormities, Mrs Clowes still struck him as a
most agreeable, decent, kindly, motherly woman--quite apart from her
handsomeness. And her offspring, each hidden to the eyes behind a mug,
were a very well-behaved lot of children.
"It does me good," said Mrs Clowes, quaffing. "And ye need summat to
keep ye up in these days! We did _Belphegor_ and _The Witch_ and a
harlequinade last night. And not one of these children got to bed before
half after midnight. But I was determined to have 'em at chapel this
morning. And not sorry I am I went! Eh, mester, what a Virginius you'd
ha' made! I never heard preaching like it--not as I've heard much!"
"And you'll never hear anything like it again, missis," said Jock, "for
I've preached my last sermon."
"Nay, nay!" Mrs Clowes deprecated.
"I've preached my last sermon," said Jock again. "And if I've saved a
soul wi' it, missis...!" He looked at her steadily and then drank.
"I won't say as ye haven't," said Mrs Clowes, lowering her eyes.
Rather less than a week later, on a darkening night, a van left the town
of Bursley by the Moorthorne Road on its way to Axe-in-the-Moors, which
is the metropolis of the wild wastes that cut off northern Staffordshire
from Derbyshire. This van was the last of Mrs Clowes's caravanserai, and
almost the last to leave the Fair. Owing to popular interest in the
events of Jock-at-a-Venture's public career, in whose meshes Mrs Clowes
had somehow got caught, the booth of Mrs Clowes had succeeded beyond any
other booth, and had kept open longer and burned more naphtha and taken
far more money. The other vans of the stout lady's enterprise (there
were three in all) had gone forward in advance, with all her elder
children and her children-in-law and her grandchildren, and the heavy
wood and canvas of the booth. Mrs Clowes, transacting her own business
herself, from habit, invariably brought up the rear of her procession
out of a town; and sometimes her leisurely manner of settling with the
town authorities for water, ground-space and other necessary
com-modities, left her several miles behind her tribe.
The mistress's van, though it would not compare with the glorious
vehicles that showmen put upon the road in these days, was a roomy and
dignified specimen, and about as good as money could then buy. The front
portion consisted of a parlour and kitchen combined, and at the back was
a dormitory. In the dormitory Kezia, Sapphira and the youngest of their
brothers were sleeping hard. In the parlour and kitchen sat Mrs Clowes,
warmly enveloped, holding the reins with her right hand and a shabby,
paper-covered book in her left hand. The book was the celebrated play,
_The Gamester_, and Mrs Clowes was studying therein the role of
Dulcibel. Not a role for which Mrs Clowes was physically fitted; but her
prolific daughter, Hephzibah, to whom it appertained by prescription,
could not possibly play it any longer, and would, indeed, be
incapacitated from any role whatever for at least a month. And the
season was not yet over; for folk were hardier in those days.
The reins stretched out from the careless hand of Mrs Clowes and
vanished through a slit between the double doors, which had been fixed
slightly open. Mrs Clowes's gaze, penetrating now and then the slit,
could see the gleam of her lamp's ray on a horse's flank. The only
sounds were the hoof-falls of the horse, the crunching of the wheels on
the wet road, the occasional rattle of a vessel in the racks when the