Part 4 out of 6
"Bosh!" said Simeon. "Drink it. Besides, there's no kissing in a
Registry Office. You're thinking of a church. I wish you wouldn't think
so much. Here! Now the necktie, you cuckoo!"
In three minutes they were driving rapidly through the London mist
towards the other sex, and in a quarter of an hour there was one
bachelor the less in this vale of tears.
THE WIDOW OF THE BALCONY
They stood at the window of her boudoir in the new house which Stephen
Cheswardine had recently bought at Sneyd. The stars were pursuing their
orbits overhead in a clear dark velvet sky, except to the north, where
the industrial fires and smoke of the Five Towns had completely put them
out. But even these distant signs of rude labour had a romantic aspect,
and did not impair the general romance of the scene. Charlie had loved
her; he loved her still; and she gave him odd minutes of herself when
she could, just to keep him alive. Moreover, there was the log fire
richly crackling in the well-grate of the boudoir; there was the
feminineness of the boudoir (dimly lit), and the soft splendour of her
gown, and behind all that, pervading the house, the gay rumour of the
party. And in front of them the window-panes, and beyond the
window-panes the stars in their orbits. Doubtless it was such influences
which, despite several degrees of frost outside, gave to Charlie
Woodruff's thoughts an Italian, or Spanish, turn. He said:
"Stephen ought to have this window turned into a French window, and
build you a balcony. It could easily be done. Just the view for a
balcony. You can see Sneyd Lake from here." (You could. People were
skating on it.)
He did not add that you could see the Sneyd Golf Links from there, and
_vice versa_. I doubt if the idea occurred to him, but as he was an
active member of the Sneyd Golf Club it would certainly have presented
itself to him in due season.
"What a lovely scheme!" Vera exclaimed enthusiastically.
It appealed to her. It appealed to all that was romantic in her
bird-like soul. She did not see the links; she did not see the lake; she
just saw herself in exquisite frocks, lightly lounging on the balcony in
high summer, and dreaming of her own beauty.
"And have a striped awning," she said.
"Yes," he said. "Make Stephen do it."
"I will," she said.
At that moment Stephen came in, with his bald head and his forty years.
"I say!" he demanded. "What are you up to?"
"We were just watching the skaters," said Vera.
"And the wonders of the night," said Charlie, chuckling
characteristically. He always laughed at himself. He was a philosopher.
He and Stephen had been fast friends from infancy.
"Well, you'd just better skate downstairs," said Stephen. (No romance in
Stephen! He was netting a couple of thousand a year out of the
manufacture of toilet-sets, in all that smoke to the north. How could
you expect him to be romantic?)
"Charlie was saying how nice it would be for me to have a French window
here, and a marble balcony," Vera remarked. It had not taken her long to
think of marble. "You must do it for me, Steve."
"Bosh!" said Stephen. "That's just like you, Charlie. What an ass you
"Oh, but you _must_!" said Vera, in that tone which meant business, and
which also meant trouble for Stephen.
"_She's_ come," Stephen announced curtly, determined to put trouble off.
"Oh, has she?" cried Vera. "I thought you said she wouldn't."
"She hesitated, because she was afraid. But she's come after all,"
"What fun!" Vera murmured.
And ran off downstairs back again into the midst of the black coats and
the white toilettes and the holly-clad electricity of her Christmas
The news that _she_ had come was all over the noisy house in a minute,
and it had the astonishing effect of producing what might roughly be
described as a silence. It stopped the reckless waltzing of the piano in
the drawing-room; it stopped the cackle incident to cork-pool in the
billiard-room; it even stopped a good deal of the whispering under the
Chinese lanterns beneath the stairs and in the alcove at the top of the
stairs. What it did not stop was the consumption of mince-pies and
claret-cup in the small breakfast-room; people mumbled about _her_
_She_, having been sustained with turkey and beer in the kitchen, was
led by the backstairs up to Vera's very boudoir, that being the only
suitable room. And there she waited. She was a woman of about
forty-five; fat, unfair (in the physical sense), and untidy. Of her
hands the less said the better. She had probably never visited a
professional coiffeur in her life. Her form was straitly confined in an
atrocious dress of linsey-woolsey, and she wore an apron that was
neither white nor black. Her boots were commodious. After her meal she
was putting a hat-pin to a purpose which hat-pins do not usually serve.
She gained an honest living by painting green leaves on yellow
wash-basins in Stephen's renowned earthenware manufactory. She spoke the
dialect of the people. She had probably never heard of Christian
Science, bridge, Paquin, Panhard, Father Vaughan, the fall of consols,
osprey plumes, nor the new theology. Nobody in the house knew her name;
even Stephen had forgotten it. And yet the whole house was agog
The fact was that in the painting-shops of the various manufactories
where she had painted green leaves on yellow wash-basins (for in all her
life she had done little else) she possessed a reputation as a prophet,
seer, oracle, fortune-teller--what you will. Polite persons would
perhaps never have heard of her reputation, the toiling millions of the
Five Towns being of a rather secretive nature in such matters, had not
the subject of fortune-telling been made prominent in the district by
the celebrated incident of the fashionable palmist. The fashionable
palmist, having thriven enormously in Bond Street, had undertaken a tour
through the provinces and had stopped several days at Hanbridge (our
metropolis), where he had an immense vogue until the Hanbridge police
hit on the singular idea of prosecuting him for an unlawful vagabond.
Stripped of twenty pounds odd in the guise of a fine and costs, and
having narrowly missed the rigours of our county jail, that fashionable
palmist and soothsayer had returned to Bond Street full of hate and
respect for Midland justice, which fears not and has a fist like a
navvy's. The attention of the Five Towns had thus been naturally drawn
to fortune-telling in general. And it was deemed that in securing a
local celebrity (quite an amateur, and therefore, it was uncertainly
hoped, on the windy side of the law) for the diversion of his Christmas
party Stephen Cheswardine had done a stylish and original thing.
Of course no one in the house believed in fortune-telling. Oh no! But as
an amusement it was amusing. As fun, it was fun. She did her business
with tea-leaves: so the tale ran. This was not considered to be very
distinguished. A crystal, or even cards, or the anatomy of a sacrificed
fowl, would have been better than tea-leaves; tea-leaves were decidedly
lower class. And yet, despite these drawbacks, when the question arose
who should first visit the witch of Endor, there was a certain
"No, _you_ go."
"Oh! _I'm_ not going," (a superior laugh), etc.
At last it was decided that Jack Hall and Cissy Woodruff (Charlie's much
younger sister), the pair having been engaged to be married for exactly
three days, should make the first call. They ascended, blushing and
brave. In a moment Jack Hall descended alone, nervously playing with the
silk handkerchief that was lodged in his beautiful white waistcoat. The
witch of Endor had informed him that she never received the two sexes
together, and had expelled him. This incident greatly enhanced the
witch's reputation. Then Stephen happened to mention that he had heard
that the woman's mother, and her grandmother before her, had been
fortune-tellers. Somehow that statement seemed to strike everybody full
in the face; it set a seal on the authority of the witch, made her
genuine. And an uncanny feeling seemed to spread through the house as
the house waited for Cissy to reappear.
"She's very _good_," said Cissy, on emerging. "She told me all sorts of
A group formed at the foot of the stairs.
"What did she tell you?"
"Well, she said I must expect a very important letter in a few days, and
much would depend on it, and next year there will be a big removal, and
a large lumbering piece of furniture, and I shall go a journey over
water. It's quite right, you know. I suppose the letter's from grandma;
I hope it is, anyway. And if we go to France--"
Thenceforward the witch without a name held continuous receptions in
the boudoir, and the boudoir gradually grew into an abode of mystery and
strangeness, hypnotizing the entire house. People went thither; people
came back; and those who had not been pictured to themselves something
very incantatory, and little by little they made up their minds to go.
Some thought the woman excellent, others said it was all rot. But none
denied that it was interesting. None could possibly deny that the
fortune-telling had killed every other diversion provided by the
hospitable Stephen and Vera (except the refreshments). The most scornful
scoffers made a concession and kindly consented to go to the boudoir.
Stephen went. Charlie went. Even the Mayor of Hanbridge went (not being
on the borough Bench that night).
But Vera would not go. A genuine fear was upon her. Christmases had
always been unlucky for her peace of mind. And she was highly
superstitious. Yet she wanted to go; she was burning to go, all the
while assuring her guests that nothing would induce her to go. The party
drew to a close, and pair by pair the revellers drove off, or walked,
into the romantic night. Then Stephen told Vera to give the woman
half-a-sovereign and let her depart, for it was late. And in paying the
half-sovereign to the woman Vera was suddenly overcome by temptation and
asked for her fortune. The woman's grimy simplicity, her smiling face,
the commonness of her teapot, her utter unlikeness to anything in the
first act of _Macbeth_, encouraged Vera to believe in her magic powers.
Vera's hand trembled as, under instructions, she tipped the tea-leaves
into the saucer.
"Ay!" said the witch, in broadest Staffordshire, running her
objectionable hand up and down the buttons of her linsey-woolsey bodice,
and gently agitating the saucer. "Theer's a widder theer." [There's a
widow there.] "Yo'll be havin' a letter, or it mit be a talligram--"
Vera wouldn't hear any more. Her one fear in life was the fear of
Stephen's death (though she _did_ console Charlie with nice smiles and
lots of _tete-a-tete)_, and here was this fiendish witch directly
foreseeing the dreadful event.
Every day for many days Stephen expected to have to take part in a
pitched battle about the proposed balcony. The sweet enemy, however, did
not seem to be in fighting form. It is true that she mentioned the
balcony, but she mentioned it in quite a reasonable spirit. Astounding
as the statement may appear to any personal acquaintance of Vera's, Vera
showed a capacity to perceive that there were two sides to the question.
When Stephen pointed out that balconies were unsuited to the English
climate, she almost agreed. When he said that balconies were dangerous
and that to have a safe one would necessitate the strengthening of the
wall, she merely replied, with wonderful meekness, that she only weighed
seven stone twelve. When he informed her that the breakfast-room,
already not too light, was underneath the proposed balcony, which would
further darken it, she kept an angelic silence. And when he showed her
that the view from the proposed balcony would in any case be marred by
the immense pall of Five Towns smoke to the south, she still kept an
Stephen could not understand it.
Nor was this all. She became extraordinarily solicitous for his welfare,
especially in the matter of health. She wrapped him up when he went out,
and unpacked him when he came in. She cautioned him against draughts,
overwork, microbes, and dietary indiscretions. Thanks to regular boxing
exercise, his old dyspepsia had almost entirely disappeared, but this
did not prevent her from watching every mouthful that vanished under the
portals of his moustache. And she superintended his boxing too. She made
a point of being present whenever he and Charlie boxed, and she would
force Charlie to cease fighting at the oddest moments. She was flat
against having a motor-car; she compelled Stephen to drive to the
station in the four-wheeler instead of in the high dogcart. Indeed, from
the way she guarded him, he might have been the one frail life that
stood between England and anarchy.
And she was always so kind, in a rather melancholy, resigned, wistful
No. Stephen could _not_ understand it.
There came a time when Stephen could neither understand it nor stand it.
And he tried to worm out of her her secret. But he could not. The
fascinating little liar stoutly stuck to it that nothing was the matter
with her, and that she had nothing on her mind. Stephen knew
differently. He consulted Charlie Woodruff. She had not made a confidant
of Charlie. Charlie was exactly as much in the dark as Stephen. Then
Stephen (I regret to have to say it) took to swearing. For instance, he
swore when she hid all his thin socks and so obliged him to continue
with his thick ones. And one day he swore when, in answer to his query
why she was pale, she said she didn't know.
He thus, without expecting to do so, achieved a definite climax.
For she broke out. She ceased in half a second to be pale. She gave him
with cutting candour all that had been bottled up in her entrancing
bosom. She told him that the witch had foreseen her a widow (which was
the same thing as prophesying his death), and that she had done, and was
doing, all that the ingenuity of a loving heart could suggest to keep
him alive in spite of the prediction, but that, in face of his infamous
brutality, she should do no more; that if he chose to die and leave her
a widow he might die and leave her a widow for all she cared; in brief,
that she had done with him.
When she had become relatively calm Stephen addressed her calmly, and
"I'm sorry," he said, and added, "but you know you did say that you were
hiding nothing from me."
"Of course," she retorted, "because I _was_." Her arguments were usually
on this high plane of logic.
"And you ought not to be so superstitious," Stephen proceeded.
"Well," said she, with truth, "one never knows." And she wiped away a
tear and showed the least hint of an inclination to kiss him. "And
anyhow my only anxiety was for you."
"Do you really believe what that woman said?" Stephen asked.
"Well," she repeated, "one never knows."
"Because if you do, I'll tell you something."
"What?" Vera demanded.
At this juncture Stephen committed an error of tactics. He might have
let her continue in the fear of his death, and thus remained on velvet
(subject to occasional outbreaks) for the rest of his life. But he gave
himself utterly away.
"She told _me_ I should live till I was ninety," said he. "So you can't
be a widow for quite half a century, and you'll be eighty yourself
Within twenty-four hours she was at him about the balcony.
"The summer will be lovely," she said, in reply to his argument about
"Rubbish," she said, in reply to his argument about safety.
"Who cares for your old breakfast-room?" she said, in reply to his
argument about darkness at breakfast.
"We will have trees planted on that side--big elms," she said, in reply
to his argument about the smoke of the Five Towns spoiling the view.
Whereupon Stephen definitely and clearly enunciated that he should not
build a balcony.
"Oh, but you must!" she protested.
"A balcony is quite impossible," said Stephen, with his firmest
"You'll see if it's impossible," said she, "_when I'm that widow_."
The curious may be interested to know that she has already begun to
THE CAT AND CUPID
The secret history of the Ebag marriage is now printed for the first
time. The Ebag family, who prefer their name to be accented on the first
syllable, once almost ruled Oldcastle, which is a clean and conceited
borough, with long historical traditions, on the very edge of the
industrial, democratic and unclean Five Towns. The Ebag family still
lives in the grateful memory of Oldcastle, for no family ever did more
to preserve the celebrated Oldcastilian superiority in social, moral and
religious matters over the vulgar Five Towns. The episodes leading to
the Ebag marriage could only have happened in Oldcastle. By which I mean
merely that they could not have happened in any of the Five Towns. In
the Five Towns that sort of thing does not occur. I don't know why, but
it doesn't. The people are too deeply interested in football, starting
prices, rates, public parks, sliding scales, excursions to Blackpool,
and municipal shindies, to concern themselves with organists as such. In
the Five Towns an organist may be a sanitary inspector or an auctioneer
on Mondays. In Oldcastle an organist is an organist, recognized as such
in the streets. No one ever heard of an organist in the Five Towns being
taken up and petted by a couple of old ladies. But this may occur at
Oldcastle. It, in fact, did.
The scandalous circumstances which led to the disappearance from the
Oldcastle scene of Mr Skerritt, the original organist of St Placid, have
no relation to the present narrative, which opens when the ladies Ebag
began to seek for a new organist. The new church of St Placid owed its
magnificent existence to the Ebag family. The apse had been given
entirely by old Caiaphas Ebag (ex-M.P., now a paralytic sufferer) at a
cost of twelve thousand pounds; and his was the original idea of
building the church. When, owing to the decline of the working man's
interest in beer, and one or two other things, Caiaphas lost nearly the
whole of his fortune, which had been gained by honest labour in mighty
speculations, he rather regretted the church; he would have preferred
twelve thousand in cash to a view of the apse from his bedroom window;
but he was man enough never to complain. He lived, after his
misfortunes, in a comparatively small house with his two daughters, Mrs
Ebag and Miss Ebag. These two ladies are the heroines of the tale.
Mrs Ebag had married her cousin, who had died. She possessed about six
hundred a year of her own. She was two years older than her sister, Miss
Ebag, a spinster. Miss Ebag was two years younger than Mrs Ebag. No
further information as to their respective ages ever leaked out. Miss
Ebag had a little money of her own from her deceased mother, and
Caiaphas had the wreck of his riches. The total income of the household
was not far short of a thousand a year, but of this quite two hundred a
year was absorbed by young Edith Ebag, Mrs Ebag's step-daughter (for Mrs
Ebag had been her husband's second choice). Edith, who was notorious as
a silly chit and spent most of her time in London and other absurd
places, formed no part of the household, though she visited it
occasionally. The household consisted of old Caiaphas, bedridden, and
his two daughters and Goldie. Goldie was the tomcat, so termed by reason
of his splendid tawniness. Goldie had more to do with the Ebag marriage
than anyone or anything, except the weathercock on the top of the
house. This may sound queer, but is as naught to the queerness about to
It cannot be considered unnatural that Mrs and Miss Ebag, with the
assistance of the vicar, should have managed the affairs of the church.
People nicknamed them "the churchwardens," which was not quite nice,
having regard to the fact that their sole aim was the truest welfare of
the church. They and the vicar, in a friendly and effusive way, hated
each other. Sometimes they got the better of the vicar, and, less often,
he got the better of them. In the choice of a new organist they won.
Their candidate was Mr Carl Ullman, the artistic orphan.
Mr Carl Ullman is the hero of the tale. The son of one of those German
designers of earthenware who at intervals come and settle in the Five
Towns for the purpose of explaining fully to the inhabitants how
inferior England is to Germany, he had an English mother, and he himself
was violently English. He spoke English like an Englishman and German
like an Englishman. He could paint, model in clay, and play three
musical instruments, including the organ. His one failing was that he
could never earn enough to live on. It seemed as if he was always being
drawn by an invisible string towards the workhouse door. Now and then he
made half a sovereign extra by deputizing on the organ. In such manner
had he been introduced to the Ebag ladies. His romantic and gloomy
appearance had attracted them, with the result that they had asked him
to lunch after the service, and he had remained with them till the
evening service. During the visit they had learnt that his grandfather
had been Court Councillor in the Kingdom of Saxony. Afterwards they
often said to each other how ideal it would be if only Mr Skerritt
might be removed and Carl Ullman take his place. And when Mr Skerritt
actually was removed, by his own wickedness, they regarded it as almost
an answer to prayer, and successfully employed their powerful interest
on behalf of Carl. The salary was a hundred a year. Not once in his life
had Carl earned a hundred pounds in a single year. For him the situation
meant opulence. He accepted it, but calmly, gloomily. Romantic gloom was
his joy in life. He said with deep melancholy that he was sure he could
not find a convenient lodging in Oldcastle. And the ladies Ebag then
said that he must really come and spend a few days with them and Goldie
and papa until he was "suited." He said that he hated to plant himself
on people, and yielded to the request. The ladies Ebag fussed around his
dark-eyed and tranquil pessimism, and both of them instantly grew
younger--a curious but authentic phenomenon. They adored his playing,
and they were enchanted to discover that his notions about hymn tunes
agreed with theirs, and by consequence disagreed with the vicar's. In
the first week or two they scored off the vicar five times, and the
advantage of having your organist in your own house grew very apparent.
They were also greatly impressed by his gentleness with Goldie and by
his intelligent interest in serious questions.
One day Miss Ebag said timidly to her sister: "It's just six months
"What do you mean, sister?" asked Mrs Ebag, self-consciously.
"Since Mr Ullman came."
"So it is!" said Mrs Ebag, who was just as well aware of the date as the
spinster was aware of it.
They said no more. The position was the least bit delicate. Carl had
found no lodging. He did not offer to go. They did not want him to go.
He did not offer to pay. And really he cost them nothing except
laundry, whisky and fussing. How could they suggest that he should pay?
He lived amidst them like a beautiful mystery, and all were seemingly
content. Carl was probably saving the whole of his salary, for he never
bought clothes and he did not smoke. The ladies Ebag simply did what
they liked about hymn-tunes.
You would have thought that no outsider would find a word to say, and
you would have been mistaken. The fact that Mrs Ebag was two years older
than Miss and Miss two years younger than Mrs Ebag; the fact that old
Caiaphas was, for strong reasons, always in the house; the fact that the
ladies were notorious cat-idolaters; the fact that the reputation of the
Ebag family was and had ever been spotless; the fact that the Ebag
family had given the apse and practically created the entire church; all
these facts added together did not prevent the outsider from finding a
word to say.
At first words were not said; but looks were looked, and coughs were
coughed. Then someone, strolling into the church of a morning while Carl
Ullman was practising, saw Miss Ebag sitting in silent ecstasy in a
corner. And a few mornings later the same someone, whose curiosity had
been excited, veritably saw Mrs Ebag in the organ-loft with Carl Ullman,
but no sign of Miss Ebag. It was at this juncture that words began to be
Words! Not complete sentences! The sentences were never finished. "Of
course, it's no affair of mine, but--" "I wonder that people like the
Ebags should--" "Not that I should ever dream of hinting that--" "First
one and then the other--well!" "I'm sure that if either Mrs or Miss
Ebag had the slightest idea they'd at once--" And so on. Intangible
gossamer criticism, floating in the air!
One evening--it was precisely the first of June--when a thunderstorm was
blowing up from the south-west, and scattering the smoke of the Five
Towns to the four corners of the world, and making the weathercock of
the house of the Ebags creak, the ladies Ebag and Carl Ullman sat
together as usual in the drawing-room. The French window was open, but
banged to at intervals. Carl Ullman had played the piano and the ladies
Ebag--Mrs Ebag, somewhat comfortably stout and Miss Ebag spare--were
talking very well and sensibly about the influence of music on
character. They invariably chose such subjects for conversation. Carl
was chiefly silent, but now and then, after a sip of whisky, he would
say "Yes" with impressiveness and stare gloomily out of the darkening
window. The ladies Ebag had a remarkable example of the influence of
music on character in the person of Edith Ebag. It appeared that Edith
would never play anything but waltzes--Waldteufel's for choice--and that
the foolish frivolity of her flyaway character was a direct consequence
of this habit. Carl felt sadly glad, after hearing the description of
Edith's carryings-on, that Edith had chosen to live far away.
And then the conversation languished and died with the daylight, and a
certain self-consciousness obscured the social atmosphere. For a vague
rumour of the chatter of the town had penetrated the house, and the
ladies Ebag, though they scorned chatter, were affected by it; Carl
Ullman, too. It had the customary effect of such chatter; it fixed the
thoughts of those chatted about on matters which perhaps would not
otherwise have occupied their attention.
The ladies Ebag said to themselves: "We are no longer aged nineteen. We
are moreover living with our father. If he is bedridden, what then? This
gossip connecting our names with that of Mr Ullman is worse than
baseless; it is preposterous. We assert positively that we have no
designs of any kind on Mr Ullman."
Nevertheless, by dint of thinking about that gossip, the naked idea of a
marriage with Mr Ullman soon ceased to shock them. They could gaze at it
without going into hysterics.
As for Carl, he often meditated upon his own age, which might have been
anything between thirty and forty-five, and upon the mysterious ages of
the ladies, and upon their goodness, their charm, their seriousness,
their intelligence and their sympathy with himself.
Hence the self-consciousness in the gloaming.
To create a diversion Miss Ebag walked primly to the window and cried:
It was Goldie's bedtime. In summer he always strolled into the garden
after dinner, and he nearly always sensibly responded to the call when
his bed-hour sounded. No one would have dreamed of retiring until Goldie
was safely ensconced in his large basket under the stairs.
"Naughty Goldie!" Miss Ebag said, comprehensively, to the garden.
She went into the garden to search, and Mrs Ebag followed her, and Carl
Ullman followed Mrs Ebag. And they searched without result, until it was
black night and the threatening storm at last fell. The vision of Goldie
out in that storm desolated the ladies, and Carl Ullman displayed the
nicest feeling. At length the rain drove them in and they stood in the
drawing-room with anxious faces, while two servants, under directions
from Carl, searched the house for Goldie.
"If you please'm," stammered the housemaid, rushing rather
unconventionally into the drawing-room, "cook says she thinks Goldie
must be on the roof, in the vane."
"On the roof in the vane?" exclaimed Mrs Ebag, pale. "In the vane?"
"Whatever do you mean, Sarah?" asked Miss Ebag, even paler.
The ladies Ebag were utterly convinced that Goldie was not like other
cats, that he never went on the roof, that he never had any wish to do
anything that was not in the strictest sense gentlemanly and correct.
And if by chance he did go on the roof, it was merely to examine the
roof itself, or to enjoy the view therefrom out of gentlemanly
curiosity. So that this reference to the roof shocked them. The night
did not favour the theory of view-gazing.
"Cook says she heard the weather-vane creaking ever since she went
upstairs after dinner, and now it's stopped; and she can hear Goldie
a-myowling like anything."
"Is cook in her attic?" asked Mrs Ebag.
"Ask her to come out. Mr Ullman, will you be so very good as to come
upstairs and investigate?"
Cook, enveloped in a cloak, stood out on the second landing, while Mr
Ullman and the ladies invaded her chamber. The noise of myowling was
terrible. Mr Ullman opened the dormer window, and the rain burst in,
together with a fury of myowling. But he did not care. It lightened and
thundered. But he did not care. He procured a chair of cook's and put it
under the window and stood on it, with his back to the window, and
twisted forth his body so that he could spy up the roof. The ladies
protested that he would be wet through, but he paid no heed to them.
Then his head, dripping, returned into the room. "I've just seen by a
flash of lightning," he said in a voice of emotion. "The poor animal has
got his tail fast in the socket of the weather-vane. He must have been
whisking it about up there, and the vane turned and caught it. The vane
"How dreadful!" said Mrs Ebag. "Whatever can be done?"
"He'll be dead before morning," sobbed Miss Ebag.
"I shall climb up the roof and release him," said Carl Ullman, gravely.
They forbade him to do so. Then they implored him to refrain. But he was
adamant. And in their supplications there was a note of insincerity, for
their hearts bled for Goldie, and, further, they were not altogether
unwilling that Carl should prove himself a hero. And so, amid
apprehensive feminine cries of the acuteness of his danger, Carl crawled
out of the window and faced the thunder, the lightning, the rain, the
slippery roof, and the maddened cat. A group of three servants were
huddled outside the attic door.
In the attic the ladies could hear his movements on the roof, moving
higher and higher. The suspense was extreme. Then there was silence;
even the myowling had ceased. Then a clap of thunder; and then, after
that, a terrific clatter on the roof, a bounding downwards as of a great
stone, a curse, a horrid pause, and finally a terrific smashing of
foliage and cracking of wood.
Mrs Ebag sprang to the window.
"It's all right," came a calm, gloomy voice from below. "I fell into the
rhododendrons, and Goldie followed me. I'm not hurt, thank goodness!
Just my luck!"
A bell rang imperiously. It was the paralytic's bell. He had been
disturbed by these unaccustomed phenomena.
"Sister, do go to father at once," said Mrs Ebag, as they both hastened
downstairs in a state of emotion, assuredly unique in their lives.
Mrs Ebag met Carl and the cat as they dripped into the gas-lit
drawing-room. They presented a surprising spectacle, and they were doing
damage to the Persian carpet at the rate of about five shillings a
second; but that Carl, and the beloved creature for whom he had dared so
much, were equally unhurt appeared to be indubitable. Of course, it was
a miracle. It could not be regarded as other than a miracle. Mrs Ebag
gave vent to an exclamation in which were mingled pity, pride,
admiration and solicitude, and then remained, as it were, spellbound.
The cat escaped from those protecting arms and fled away. Instead of
following Goldie, Mrs Ebag continued to gaze at the hero.
"How can I thank you!" she whispered.
"What for?" asked Carl, with laconic gloom.
"For having saved my darling!" said Mrs Ebag. And there was passion in
"Oh!" said Carl. "It was nothing!"
"Nothing?" Mrs Ebag repeated after him, with melting eyes, as if to
imply that, instead of being nothing, it was everything; as if to imply
that his deed must rank hereafter with the most splendid deeds of
antiquity; as if to imply that the whole affair was beyond words to
utter or gratitude to repay.
And in fact Carl himself was moved. You cannot fall from the roof of a
two-story house into a very high-class rhododendron bush, carrying a
prize cat in your arms, without being a bit shaken. And Carl was a bit
shaken, not merely physically, but morally and spiritually. He could not
deny to himself that he had after all done something rather wondrous,
which ought to be celebrated in sounding verse. He felt that he was in
an atmosphere far removed from the commonplace.
He dripped steadily on to the carpet.
"You know how dear my cat was to me," proceeded Mrs Ebag. "And you
risked your life to spare me the pain of his suffering, perhaps his
death. How thankful I am that I insisted on having those rhododendrons
planted just where they are--fifteen years ago! I never anticipated--"
She stopped. Tears came into her dowager eyes. It was obvious that she
worshipped him. She was so absorbed in his heroism that she had no
thought even for his dampness. As Carl's eyes met hers she seemed to him
to grow younger. And there came into his mind all the rumour that had
vaguely reached him coupling their names together; and also his early
dreams of love and passion and a marriage that would be one long
honeymoon. And he saw how absurd had been those early dreams. He saw
that the best chance of a felicitous marriage lay in a union of mature
and serious persons, animated by grave interests and lofty ideals. Yes,
she was older than he. But not much, not much! Not more than--how many
years? And he remembered surprising her rapt glance that very evening as
she watched him playing the piano. What had romance to do with age?
Romance could occur at any age. It was occurring now. Her soft eyes, her
portly form, exuded romance. And had not the renowned Beaconsfield
espoused a lady appreciably older than himself, and did not those
espousals achieve the ideal of bliss? In the act of saving the cat he
had not been definitely aware that it was so particularly the cat of the
household. But now, influenced by her attitude and her shining
reverence, he actually did begin to persuade himself that an
uncontrollable instinctive desire to please her and win her for his own
had moved him to undertake the perilous passage of the sloping roof.
In short, the idle chatter of the town was about to be justified. In
another moment he might have dripped into her generous arms ... had not
Miss Ebag swept into the drawing-room!
"Gracious!" gasped Miss Ebag. "The poor dear thing will have pneumonia.
Sister, you know his chest is not strong. Dear Mr Ullman, please,
please, do go and--er--change."
He did the discreet thing and went to bed, hot whisky following him on a
tray carried by the housemaid.
The next morning the slightly unusual happened. It was the custom for
Carl Ullman to breakfast alone, while reading _The Staffordshire
Signal_. The ladies Ebag breakfasted mysteriously in bed. But on this
morning Carl found Miss Ebag before him in the breakfast-room. She
prosecuted minute inquiries as to his health and nerves. She went out
with him to regard the rhododendron bushes, and shuddered at the sight
of the ruin which had saved him. She said, following famous
philosophers, that Chance was merely the name we give to the effect of
laws which we cannot understand. And, upon this high level of
conversation, she poured forth his coffee and passed his toast.
It was a lovely morning after the tempest.
Goldie, all newly combed, and looking as though he had never seen a
roof, strolled pompously into the room with tail unfurled. Miss Ebag
picked the animal up and kissed it passionately.
"Darling!" she murmured, not exactly to Mr Ullman, nor yet exactly to
the cat. Then she glanced effulgently at Carl and said, "When I think
that you risked your precious life, in that awful storm, to save my poor
Goldie?... You must have guessed how dear he was to me?... No, really,
Mr Ullman, I cannot thank you properly! I can't express my--"
Her eyes were moist.
Although not young, she was two years younger. Her age was two years
less. The touch of man had never profaned her. No masculine kiss had
ever rested on that cheek, that mouth. And Carl felt that he might be
the first to cull the flower that had so long waited. He did not see,
just then, the hollow beneath her chin, the two lines of sinew that,
bounding a depression, disappeared beneath her collarette. He saw only
her soul. He guessed that she would be more malleable than the widow,
and he was sure that she was not in a position, as the widow was, to
make comparisons between husbands. Certainly there appeared to be some
confusion as to the proprietorship of this cat. Certainly he could not
have saved the cat's life for love of two different persons. But that
was beside the point. The essential thing was that he began to be glad
that he had decided nothing definite about the widow on the previous
"Darling!" said she again, with a new access of passion, kissing Goldie,
but darting a glance at Carl.
He might have put to her the momentous question, between two bites of
buttered toast, had not Mrs Ebag, at the precise instant, swum amply
into the room.
"Sister! You up!" exclaimed Miss Ebag.
"And you, sister!" retorted Mrs Ebag.
It is impossible to divine what might have occurred for the delectation
of the very ancient borough of Oldcastle if that frivolous piece of
goods, Edith, had not taken it into her head to run down from London for
a few days, on the plea that London was too ridiculously hot. She was a
pretty girl, with fluffy honey-coloured hair and about thirty white
frocks. And she seemed to be quite as silly as her staid stepmother and
her prim step-aunt had said. She transformed the careful order of the
house into a wild disorder, and left a novel or so lying on the
drawing-room table between her stepmother's _Contemporary Review_ and
her step-aunt's _History of European Morals_. Her taste in music was
candidly and brazenly bad. It was a fact, as her elders had stated, that
she played nothing but waltzes. What was worse, she compelled Carl
Ullman to perform waltzes. And one day she burst into the drawing-room
when Carl was alone there, with a roll under her luscious arm, and said:
"What do you think I've found at Barrowfoot's?"
"I don't know," said Carl, gloomily smiling, and then smiling without
"Waldteufel's waltzes arranged for four hands. You must play them with
me at once."
And he did. It was a sad spectacle to see the organist of St Placid's
galloping through a series of dances with the empty-headed Edith.
The worst was, he liked it. He knew that he ought to prefer the high
intellectual plane, the severe artistic tastes, of the elderly sisters.
But he did not. He was amazed to discover that frivolity appealed more
powerfully to his secret soul. He was also amazed to discover that his
gloom was leaving him. This vanishing of gloom gave him strange
sensations, akin to the sensations of a man who, after having worn
gaiters into middle-age, abandons them.
After the Waldteufel she began to tell him all about herself; how she
went slumming in the East End, and how jolly it was. And how she helped
in the Bloomsbury Settlement, and how jolly that was. And, later, she
"You must have thought it very odd of me, Mr Ullman, not thanking you
for so bravely rescuing my poor cat; but the truth is I never heard of
it till to-day. I can't say how grateful I am. I should have loved to
see you doing it."
"Is Goldie your cat?" he feebly inquired.
"Why, of course?" she said. "Didn't you know? Of course you did! Goldie
always belonged to me. Grandpa bought him for me. But I couldn't do with
him in London, so I always leave him here for them to take care of. He
adores me. He never forgets me. He'll come to me before anyone. You must
have noticed that. I can't say how grateful I am! It was perfectly
marvellous of you! I can't help laughing, though, whenever I think what
a state mother and auntie must have been in that night!"
Strictly speaking, they hadn't a cent between them, except his hundred a
year. But he married her hair and she married his melancholy eyes; and
she was content to settle in Oldcastle, where there are almost no slums.
And her stepmother was forced by Edith to make the hundred up to four
hundred. This was rather hard on Mrs Ebag. Thus it fell out that Mrs
Ebag remained a widow, and that Miss Ebag continues a flower uncalled.
However, gossip was stifled.
In his appointed time, and in the fulness of years, Goldie died, and was
mourned. And by none was he more sincerely mourned than by the aged
"I miss my cat, I can tell ye!" said old Caiaphas pettishly to Carl, who
was sitting by his couch. "He knew his master, Goldie did! Edith did her
best to steal him from me when you married and set up house. A nice
thing considering I bought him and he never belonged to anybody but me!
Ay! I shall never have another cat like that cat."
And this is the whole truth of the affair.
THE FORTUNE TELLER
The prologue to this somewhat dramatic history was of the simplest. The
affair came to a climax, if one may speak metaphorically, in fire and
sword and high passion, but it began like the month of March. Mr Bostock
(a younger brother of the senior partner in the famous firm of Bostocks,
drapers, at Hanbridge) was lounging about the tennis-court attached to
his house at Hillport. Hillport has long been known as the fashionable
suburb of Bursley, and indeed as the most aristocratic quarter strictly
within the Five Towns; there certainly are richer neighbourhoods not far
off, but such neighbourhoods cannot boast that they form part of the
Five Towns--no more than Hatfield can boast that it is part of London. A
man who lives in a detached house at Hillport, with a tennis-court, may
be said to have succeeded in life. And Mr Bostock had succeeded. A
consulting engineer of marked talent, he had always worked extremely
hard and extremely long, and thus he had arrived at luxuries. The chief
of his luxuries was his daughter Florence, aged twenty-three, height
five feet exactly, as pretty and as neat as a new doll, of expensive and
obstinate habits. It was Florence who was the cause of the episode, and
I mention her father only to show where Florence stood in the world. She
ruled her father during perhaps eleven months of the year. In the
twelfth month (which was usually January--after the Christmas bills)
there would be an insurrection, conducted by the father with much spirit
for a time, but ultimately yielding to the forces of the government.
Florence had many admirers; a pretty woman, who habitually rules a rich
father, is bound to have many admirers. But she had two in particular;
her cousin, Ralph Martin, who had been apprenticed to her father, and
Adam Tellwright, a tile manufacturer at Turnhill.
These four--the father and daughter and the rivals--had been playing
tennis that Saturday afternoon. Mr Bostock, though touching on fifty,
retained a youthful athleticism; he looked and talked younger than his
years, and he loved the society of young people. If he wandered solitary
and moody about the tennis-court now, it was because he had a great deal
on his mind besides business. He had his daughter's future on his mind.
A servant with apron-strings waving like flags in the breeze came from
the house with a large loaded tea-tray, and deposited it on a wicker
table on the small lawn at the end of the ash court. The rivals were
reclining in deck chairs close to the table; the Object of Desire, all
in starched white, stood over the table and with quick delicious
movements dropped sugar and poured milk into tinkling porcelain.
"Now, father," she called briefly, without looking up, as she seized the
He approached, gazing thoughtfully at the group. Yes, he was worried.
And everyone was secretly worried. The situation was exceedingly
delicate, fragile, breakable. Mr Bostock looked uneasily first at Adam
Tellwright, tall, spick and span, self-confident, clever, shining, with
his indubitable virtues mainly on the outside. If ever any man of
thirty-two in all this world was eligible, Adam Tellwright was.
Decidedly he had a reputation for preternaturally keen smartness in
trade, but in trade that cannot be called a defect; on the contrary, if
a man has virtues, you cannot precisely quarrel with him because they
happen to be on the outside; the principal thing is to have virtues. And
then Mr Bostock looked uneasily at Ralph Martin, heavy, short, dark,
lowering, untidy, often incomprehensible, and more often rude; with
virtues concealed as if they were secret shames. Ralph was capricious.
At moments he showed extraordinary talent as an engineer; at others he
behaved like a nincompoop. He would be rich one day; but he had a
formidable temper. The principal thing in favour of Ralph Martin was
that he and Florence had always been "something to each other." Indeed
of late years it had been begun to be understood that the match was "as
good as arranged." It was taken for granted. Then Adam Tellwright had
dropped like a bomb into the Bostock circle. He had fallen heavily and
disastrously in love with the slight Florence (whom he could have
crushed and eaten). At the start his case was regarded as hopeless, and
Ralph Martin had scorned him. But Adam Tellwright soon caused gossip to
sing a different tune, and Ralph Martin soon ceased to scorn him. Adam
undoubtedly made a profound impression on Florence Bostock. He began by
dazzling her, and then, as her eyes grew accustomed to the glare, he
gradually showed her his good qualities. Everything that skill and tact
could do Tellwright did. The same could not be said of Ralph Martin.
Most people had a vague feeling that Ralph had not been treated fairly.
Mr Bostock had this feeling. Yet why? Nothing had been settled.
Florence's heart was evidently still open to competition, and Adam
Tellwright had a perfect right to compete. Still, most people
sympathized with Ralph. But Florence did not. Young girls are like that.
Now the rivals stood about equal. No one knew how the battle would go.
Adam did not know. Ralph did not know. Florence assuredly did not know.
Mr Bostock was quite certain, of a night, that Adam would win, but the
next morning he was quite certain that his nephew would win.
No wonder that the tea-party, every member of it tremendously
preoccupied by the great battle, was not distinguished by light and
natural gaiety. Great battles cannot be talked about till they are over
and the last shot fired. And it is not to be expected that people should
be bright when each knows the others to be deeply preoccupied by a
matter which must not even be mentioned. The tea-party was
self-conscious, highly. Therefore, it ate too many cakes and chocolate,
and forgot to count its cups of tea. The conversation nearly died of
inanition several times, and at last it actually did die, and the
quartette gazed in painful silence at its corpse. Anyone who has
assisted at this kind of a tea-party will appreciate the situation. Why,
Adam Tellwright himself was out of countenance. To his honour, it was he
who first revived the corpse. A copy of the previous evening's _Signal_
was lying on an empty deck-chair. It had been out all night, and was
dampish. Tellwright picked it up, having finished his tea, and threw a
careless eye over it. He was determined to talk about something.
"By Jove!" he said. "That Balsamo johnny is coming to Hanbridge!"
"Yes, didn't you know?" said Florence, agreeably bent on resuscitating
"What! The palmistry man?" asked Mr Bostock, with a laugh.
"Yes." And Adam Tellwright read: "'Balsamo, the famous palmist and
reader of the future, begs to announce that he is making a tour through
the principal towns, and will visit Hanbridge on the 22nd inst.,
remaining three days. Balsamo has thousands of testimonials to the
accuracy of his predictions, and he absolutely guarantees not only to
read the past correctly, but to foretell the future. Address: 22 Machin
Street, Hanbridge. 10 to 10. Appointment advisable in order to avoid
delay.' There! He'll find himself in prison one day, that gentleman
"It's astounding what fools people are!" observed Mr Bostock.
"Yes, isn't it!" said Adam Tellwright.
"If he'd been a gipsy," said Ralph Martin, savagely, "the police would
have had him long ago." And he spoke with such grimness that he might
have been talking of Adam Tellwright.
"They say his uncle and his grandfather before him were both
thought-readers, or whatever you call it," said Florence.
"Do they?" exclaimed Mr Bostock, in a different tone.
"Oh!" exclaimed Adam, also in a different tone.
"I wonder whether that's true!" said Ralph Martin.
The rumour that Balsamo's uncle and grandfather had been readers of the
past and of the future produced of course quite an impression on the
party. But each recognized how foolish it was to allow oneself to be so
impressed in such an illogical manner. And therefore all the men burst
into violent depreciation of Balsamo and of the gulls who consulted him.
And by the time they had done with Balsamo there was very little left of
him. Anyhow, Adam Tellwright's discovery in the _Signal_ had saved the
tea-party from utter fiasco.
No. 22 Machin Street, Hanbridge, was next door to Bostock's vast
emporium, and exactly opposite the more exclusive, but still mighty,
establishment of Ephraim Brunt, the greatest draper in the Five Towns.
It was, therefore, in the very heart and centre of retail commerce. No
woman who respected herself could buy even a sheet of pins without
going past No. 22 Machin Street. The ground-floor was a confectioner's
shop, with a back room where tea and Berlin pancakes were served to the
_elite_ who had caught from London the fashion of drinking tea in public
places. By the side of the confectioner's was an open door and a
staircase, which led to the first floor and the other floors. A card
hung by a cord to a nail indicated that Balsamo had pitched his moving
tent for a few days on the first floor, in a suite of offices lately
occupied by a solicitor. Considering that the people who visit a palmist
are just as anxious to publish their doings as the people who visit a
pawnbroker--and no more--it might be thought that Balsamo had ill-chosen
his site. But this was not so. Balsamo, a deep student of certain sorts
of human nature, was perfectly aware that, just as necessity will force
a person to visit a pawnbroker, so will inherited superstition force a
person to visit a palmist, no matter what the inconveniences. If he had
erected a wigwam in the middle of Crown Square and people had had to
decide between not seeing him at all and running the gauntlet of a
crowd's jeering curiosity, he would still have had many clients.
Of course when you are in love you are in love. Anything may happen to
you then. Most things do happen. For example, Adam Tellwright found
himself ascending the stairs of No. 22 Machin Street at an early hour
one morning. He was, I need not say, mounting to the third floor to give
an order to the potter's modeller, who had a studio up there. Still he
stopped at the first floor, knocked at a door labelled "Balsamo,"
hesitated, and went in. I need not say that this was only fun on his
part. I need not say that he had no belief whatever in palmistry, and
was not in the least superstitious. A young man was seated at a desk, a
stylish young man. Adam Tellwright smiled, as one who expected the
stylish young man to join in the joke. But the young man did not smile.
So Adam Tellwright suddenly ceased to smile.
"Are you Mr Balsamo?" Adam inquired.
"No. I'm his secretary."
His secretary! Strange how the fact that Balsamo was guarded by a
secretary, and so stylish a secretary, affected the sagacious and
"You wish to see him?" the secretary demanded coldly.
"I suppose I may as well," said Adam, sheepishly.
"He is disengaged, I think. But I will make sure. Kindly sit down."
Down sat Adam, playing nervously with his hat, and intensely hoping that
no other client would come in and trap him.
"Mr Balsamo will see you," said the secretary, emerging through a double
black portiere. "The fee is a guinea."
He resumed his chair and drew towards him a book of receipt forms.
However, Adam paid it. The receipt form said: "Received from Mr ---- the
sum of one guinea for professional assistance.--Per Balsamo, J.H.K.,"
and a long flourish. The words "one guinea" were written. Idle to deny
that this receipt form was impressive. As Adam meekly followed "J.H.K."
in to the Presence, he felt exactly as if he was being ushered into a
dentist's cabinet. He felt as though he had been caught in the wheels of
an unstoppable machine and was in vague but serious danger.
The Presence was a bold man, with a flowing light brown moustache, blue
eyes, and a vast forehead. He wore a black velvet coat, and sat at a
small table on which was a small black velvet cushion. There were two
doors to the rooms, each screened by double black portieres, and beyond
a second chair and a large transparent ball, such as dentists use,
there was no other furniture.
"Better give me your hat," said the secretary, and took it from Adam,
who parted from it reluctantly, as if from his last reliable friend.
Then the portieres swished together, and Adam was alone with Balsamo.
Balsamo stared at him; did not even ask him to sit down.
"Why do you come to me? You don't believe in me," said Balsamo, curtly.
"Why waste your money?"
"How can I tell whether I believe in you or not," protested Adam
Tellwright, the shrewd man of business, very lamely. "I've come to see
what you can do."
Balsamo snapped his fingers.
"Sit down then," said he, "and put your hands on this cushion.
Balsamo gaped at them a long time, rubbing his chin. Then he rose,
adjusted the transparent glass ball so that the light came through it on
to Adam's hands, sat down again and resumed his stare.
"Do you want to know everything?" he asked.
"Yes." A trace of weakness in this affirmative.
"Well, you mustn't expect to live much after fifty-two. Look at the line
of life there." He spoke in such a casual, even antipathetic tone that
Adam was startled.
"You've had success. You will have it continuously. But you won't live
"What have I to avoid?" Adam demanded.
"Can't avoid your fate. You asked me to tell you everything."
"Tell me about my past," said Adam, feebly, the final remnant of
shrewdness in him urging him to get the true measure of Balsamo before
matters grew worse.
"Your past?" Balsamo murmured. "Keep your left hand quite still,
please. You aren't married. You're in business. You've never thought of
marriage--till lately. It's not often I see a hand like yours. Your
slate is clean. Till lately you never thought of marriage."
"Who can say when the idea of marriage first came to you? You couldn't
say yourself. Perhaps about three months ago. Yes--three months. I see
water--you have crossed the sea. Is all this true?"
"Yes," admitted Adam.
"You're in love, of course. Did you know you have a rival?"
"Yes." Once more Adam was startled.
"Is he fair? No, he's not fair. He's dark. Isn't he?"
"Ah! The woman. Uncertain, uncertain. Mind you I never undertake to
foretell anything; all I guarantee is that what I do foretell will
happen. Now, you will be married in a year or eighteen months." Balsamo
stuck his chin out with the gesture of one who imparts grave news; then
"Ah! There are two women. One fair, one dark. Which one do you prefer?"
"The dark one," Adam replied in spite of himself.
"Perhaps the fair one has not yet come into your life? No. But she will
"But which shall I marry?"
"Look at that line. No, here! See how indistinct and confused it is.
Your destiny is not yet settled. Frankly, I cannot tell you with
certainty. No one can go in advance of destiny. Ah! Young man, I
sympathize with you."
"Then, really you can't tell me."
"Listen! I might help you. Yes, I might help you."
"The others will come to me."
"Your rival. And the woman you love."
"What is not marked on your hand may be very clearly marked on theirs.
Come to me again."
"How do you know they will come? They both said they should not."
"You said you would not. But you are here. Rely on me. They will come. I
might do a great deal for you. Of course it will cost you more. One
lives in a world of money, and I sell my powers, like the rest of
mankind. I am proud to do so."
"How much will it cost?"
"Five pounds. You are free to take it or leave it, naturally."
Adam Tellwright put his hand in his pocket.
"Have the goodness to pay my secretary," Balsamo stopped him icily.
"I beg pardon," said Adam, out of countenance.
"Of course if they do not come the money will be returned. Now, before
you go, you might tell me all you know about him, and about her. All.
Omit nothing. It is not essential, but it might help me. There is a
chance that it might make things clearer than they otherwise could be.
The true palmist never refuses any aid."
And Adam thereupon went into an elaborate account of Florence Bostock
and Ralph Martin. He left out nothing, not even that Ralph had a wart on
his chin, and had once broken a leg; nor that Florence had once been
nearly drowned in a swimming-bath in London.
It was the same afternoon.
Balsamo stared calmly at a young dark-browed man who had entered his
sanctuary with much the same air as a village bumpkin assumes when he is
about to be shown the three-card trick on a race-course. Balsamo did not
even ask him to sit down.
"Why do you come to me? You don't believe in me," said Balsamo, curtly.
"Why waste your half-sovereign?"
Ralph Martin, not being talkative, said nothing.
"However!" Balsamo proceeded. "Sit down, please. Let me look at your
hands. Ah! yes! Do you want to know anything?"
"Yes, of course."
"Let me advise you, then, to give up all thoughts of that woman."
"You know what woman. She is a very little woman. Once she was nearly
drowned--far from here. You've loved her for a long time. You thought it
was a certainty. And upon my soul you were justified in thinking
so--almost! Look at that line. But it isn't a certainty. Look at that
Balsamo gazed at him coldly, and Ralph Martin knew not what to do or to
say. He was astounded; he was frightened; he was desolated. He perceived
at once that palmistry was after all a terrible reality.
"Tell me some more," he murmured.
And so Balsamo told him a great deal more, including full details of a
woman far finer than Florence Bostock, whom he was destined to meet in
the following year. But Ralph Martin would have none of this new woman.
Then Balsamo said suddenly:
"She is coming. I see her coming."
"The little woman. She is dressed in white, with a gold-and-white
sunshade, and yellow gloves and boots, and she has a gold reticule in
her hand. Is that she?"
Ralph Martin admitted that it was she. On the other hand, Balsamo did
not admit that he had seen her an hour earlier and had made an
appointment with her.
There was a quiet knock on the door. Ralph started.
"You hear," said Balsamo, quietly, "I fear you will never win her."
"You said just now positively that I shouldn't," Ralph exclaimed.
"I did not," said Balsamo. "I would like to help you. I am very sorry
for you. It is not often I see a hand like yours. I might be able to
help you; the destiny is not yet settled."
"I'll give you anything to help me," said Ralph.
"It will be a couple of guineas," said Balsamo.
"But what guarantee have I?" Ralph asked rudely, when he had paid the
money--to Balsamo, not to the secretary. Such changes of humour were
characteristic of him.
"None!" said Balsamo, with dignity, putting the sovereigns on the table.
"But I am sorry for you. I will tell you what you can do. You can go
behind those curtains there"--he pointed to the inner door--"and listen
to all that I say."
A proposal open to moral objections! But when you are in the state that
Ralph Martin was in, and have experienced what he had just experienced,
your out-look upon morals is apt to be disturbed.
"Young lady," Balsamo was saying. "Rest assured that I have not taken
five shillings from you for nothing. Your lover has a wart on his chin."
Daintiness itself sat in front of him, with her little porcelain hands
lying on the black cushion. And daintiness was astonished into
withdrawing those hands.
"Please keep your hands still," said Balsamo, firmly, and proceeded:
"But you have another lover, older, who has recently come into your
life. Fair, tall. A successful man who will always be successful. Is it
"Yes," a little voice muttered.
"You can't make up your mind between them? Answer me."
"And you wish to learn the future. I will tell you--you will marry the
fair man. That is your destiny. And you will be very happy. You will
soon perceive the bad qualities of the one with the wart. He is a wicked
man. I need not urge you to avoid him. You will do so."
"A bad man!"
"A bad man. You see there are two sovereigns lying here. That man has
actually tried to bribe me to influence you in his favour?"
"Since you mention his Christian name, I will mention his surname. It is
written here. Martin."
"He can't have--possibly--"
Balsamo strode with offended pride to the portiere, and pulled it away,
revealing Mr Ralph Martin, who for the second time that afternoon knew
not what to say or to do.
"I tell you--" Ralph began, as red as fire.
"Silence, sir! Let this teach you not to try to corrupt an honest
professional man! Surely I had amply convinced you of my powers! Take
your miserable money!" He offered the miserable money to Ralph, who
stuck his hands in his pockets, whereupon Balsamo flung the miserable
money violently on to the floor.
A deplorable scene followed, in which the presence of Balsamo did not
prevent Florence Bostock from conveying clearly to Ralph what she
thought of him. They spoke before Balsamo quite freely, as two people
will discuss maladies before a doctor. Ralph departed first; then
Florence. Then Balsamo gathered up the sovereigns. He had honestly
earned Adam's fiver, and since Ralph had refused the two pounds--"I have
seen their hands," said Balsamo the next day to Adam Tellwright. "All is
clear. In a month you will be engaged to her."
"A month. I regret that I had a painful scene with your rival. But of
course professional etiquette prevents me from speaking of that. Let me
repeat, in a month you will be engaged to her."
This prophecy came true. Adam Tellwright, however, did not marry
Florence Bostock. One evening, in a secluded corner at a dance, Ralph
Martin, without warning, threw his arms angrily, brutally, instinctively
round Florence's neck and kissed her. It was wrong of him. But he
conquered her. Love is like that. It hides for years, and then pops out,
and won't be denied. Florence's engagement to Adam was broken. She
married Ralph. She knew she was marrying a strange, dark-minded man of
uncertain temper, but she married him.
As for the unimpeachable Adam, he was left with nothing but the uneasy
fear that he was doomed to die at fifty-two. His wife (for he got one,
and a good one) soon cured him of that.
THE LONG-LOST UNCLE
On a recent visit to the Five Towns I was sitting with my old
schoolmaster, who, by the way, is much younger than I am after all, in
the bow window of a house overlooking that great thoroughfare, Trafalgar
Road, Bursley, when a pretty woman of twenty-eight or so passed down the
street. Now the Five Towns contains more pretty women to the square mile
than any other district in England (and this statement I am prepared to
support by either sword or pistol). But do you suppose that the
frequency of pretty women in Hanbridge, Bursley, Knype, Longshaw and
Turnhill makes them any the less remarked? Not a bit of it. Human nature
is such that even if a man should meet forty pretty women in a walk
along Trafalgar Road from Bursley to Hanbridge, he will remark them all
separately, and feel exactly forty thrills. Consequently my
ever-youthful schoolmaster said to me:
"Good-looking woman that, eh, boy? Married three weeks ago," he added.
A piece of information which took the keen edge off my interest in her.
"Really!" I said. "Who is she?"
"Married to a Scotsman named Macintyre, I fancy."
"That tells me nothing," I said. "Who was she?"
"Daughter of a man named Roden."
"Not Herbert Roden?" I demanded.
"Yes. Art director at Jacksons, Limited."
"Well, well!" I exclaimed. "So Herbert Roden's got a daughter married.
Well, well! And it seems like a week ago that he and his uncle--you
know all about that affair, of course?"
"Why, the Roden affair!"
"No," said my schoolmaster.
"You don't mean to say you've never--"
Nothing pleases a wandering native of the Five Towns more than to come
back and find that he knows things concerning the Five Towns which
another man who has lived there all his life doesn't know. In ten
seconds I was digging out for my schoolmaster one of those family
histories which lie embedded in the general grey soil of the past like
lumps of quartz veined and streaked with the precious metal of passion
and glittering here and there with the crystallizations of scandal.
"You could make a story out of that," he said, when I had done talking
and he had done laughing.
"It is a story," I replied. "It doesn't want any making."
And this is just what I told him. I have added on a few explanations and
moral reflections--and changed the names.
Silas Roden, commonly called Si Roden--Herbert's uncle--lived in one of
those old houses at Paddock Place, at the bottom of the hill where
Hanbridge begins. Their front steps are below the level of the street,
and their backyards look out on the Granville Third Pit and the works of
the Empire Porcelain Company. 11 was Si's own house, a regular
bachelor's house, as neat as a pin, and Si was very proud of it and very
particular about it. Herbert, being an orphan, lived with his uncle. He
would be about twenty-five then, and Si fifty odd. Si had retired from
the insurance agency business, and Herbert, after a spell in a lawyer's
office, had taken to art and was in the decorating department at
Jackson's. They had got on together pretty well, had Si and Herbert, in
a grim, taciturn, Five Towns way. The historical scandal began when
Herbert wanted to marry Alice Oulsnam, an orphan like himself, employed
at a dress-maker's in Crown Square, Hanbridge.
"Thou'lt marry her if thou'st a mind," said Si to Herbert, "but I s'll
ne'er speak to thee again."
"But why, uncle?"
"That's why," said Si.
Now if you have been born in the Five Towns and been blessed with the
unique Five Towns mixture of sentimentality and solid sense, you don't
flare up and stamp out of the house when a well-to-do and childless
uncle shatters your life's dream. You dissemble. You piece the dream
together again while your uncle is looking another way. You feel that
you are capable of out-witting your uncle, and you take the earliest
opportunity of "talking it over" with Alice. Alice is sagacity itself.
Si's reasons for objecting so politely to the projected marriage were
various. In the first place he had persuaded himself that he hated
women. In the second place, though in many respects a most worthy man,
he was a selfish man, and he didn't want Herbert to leave him, because
he loathed solitude. In the third place--and here is the interesting
part--he had once had an affair with Alice's mother and had been cut
out: his one deviation into the realms of romance--and a disastrous one.
He ought to have been Alice's father, and he wasn't. It angered him,
with a cold anger, that Herbert should have chosen just Alice out of the
wealth of women in the Five Towns. Herbert was unaware of this reason at
The youth was being driven to the conclusion that he would be compelled
to offend his uncle after all, when Alice came into two thousand two
hundred pounds from a deceased relative in Cheshire. The thought of
this apt legacy does good to my soul. I love people to come into a bit
of stuff unexpected. Herbert instantly advised her to breathe not a word
of the legacy to anyone. They were independent now, and he determined
that he would teach his uncle a lesson. He had an affection for his
uncle, but in the Five Towns you can have an affection for a person, and
be extremely and justly savage against that person, and plan cruel
revenges on that person, all at the same time.
Herbert felt that the legacy would modify Si's attitude towards the
marriage, if Si knew of it. Legacies, for some obscure and illogical
cause, do modify attitudes towards marriages. To keep a penniless
dressmaker out of one's family may be a righteous act. But to keep a
level-headed girl with two thousand odd of her own out of one's family
would be the act of an insensate fool. Therefore Herbert settled that Si
should not know of the legacy. Si should be defeated without the legacy,
or he should be made to suffer the humiliation of yielding after being
confronted with the accomplished fact of a secret marriage. Herbert was
fairly sure that he would yield, and in any case, with a couple of
thousand at his wife's back, Herbert could afford to take the risks of
So Herbert, who had something of the devil in him, approached his uncle
once more, with a deceitful respect, and he was once more politely
rebuffed--as indeed he had half hoped to be. He then began his
clandestine measures--measures which culminated in him leaving the house
one autumn morning dressed in a rather stylish travelling suit.
The tramcar came down presently from Hanbridge. Not one of the swift
thunderous electrical things that now chase each other all over the Five
Towns in every direction at intervals of about thirty seconds; but the
old horse-car that ran between Hanbridge and Bursley twice an hour and
no oftener, announcing its departure by a big bell, and stopping at
toll-gates with broad eaves, and climbing hills with the aid of a
tip-horse and a boy perched on the back thereof. That was a calm and
Herbert boarded the car, and raised his hat rather stiffly to a nice
girl sitting in a corner. He then sat down in another corner, far away
from her. Such is the capacity of youth for chicane! For that nice girl
was exactly Alice, and her presence on the car was part of the plot.
When the car arrived at Bursley these monsters of duplicity descended
together, and went to a small public building and entered therein, and
were directed to an official and inhospitable room which was only saved
from absolute nakedness by a desk, four Windsor chairs, some
blotting-paper, pens, ink and a copy of Keats's Directory of the Five
Towns. An amiable old man received them with a perfunctory gravity, and
two acquaintances of Herbert's strolled in, blushing. The old man told
everybody to sit down, asked them questions of no spiritual import,
abruptly told them to stand up, taught them to say a few phrases, in the
tone of a person buying a ha'-porth of tin-tacks, told them to sit down,
filled a form or two, took some of Herbert's money, and told them that
that was all, and that they could go. So they went, secretly surprised.
This was the august ritual, and this the imposing theatre, provided by
the State in those far-off days for the solemnizing of the most
important act in a citizen's life. It is different now; the copy of
Keats's Directory is a much later one.
Herbert thanked his acquaintances, who, begging him not to mention it,
"Well, that's over!" breathed Herbert with a sigh of relief. "It's too
soon to go back. Let us walk round by Moorthorne."
"I should love to!" said Alice.
It was a most enjoyable walk. In the heights of Moorthorne they
gradually threw off the depressing influence of those four Windsor
chairs, and realized their bliss. They reached Paddock Place again at a
quarter to one o'clock, which, as they were a very methodical and
trustworthy pair, was precisely the moment at which they had meant to
reach it. The idea was that they should call on Si and announce to him,
respectfully: "Uncle, we think it only right to tell you that we are
married. We hope you will not take it ill, we should like to be
friends." They would then leave the old man to eat the news with his
dinner. A cab was to be at the door at one o'clock to carry them to
Knype Station, where they would partake of the wedding breakfast in the
first-class refreshment room, and afterwards catch the two-forty to
Blackpool, there to spend a honeymoon of six days.
This was the idea.
Herbert was already rehearsing in his mind the exact tone in which he
should say to Si: "Uncle, we think it only right--" when, as they
approached the house, they both saw a white envelope suspended under the
knocker of the door. It was addressed to "Mr Herbert Roden," in the
handwriting of Silas. The moment was dramatic. As they had not yet
discussed whether correspondence should be absolutely common property,
Alice looked discreetly away while Herbert read: "Dear nephew, I've gone
on for a week or two on business, and sent Jane Sarah home. Her's in
need of a holiday. You must lodge at Bratt's meantime. I've had your
things put in there, and they've gotten the keys of the house.--Yours
affly, S. Roden." Bratt's was next door but one, and Jane Sarah was the
Roden servant, aged fifty or more.
"Well, I'm--!" exclaimed Herbert.
"Well, I never!" exclaimed Alice when she had read the letter. "What's
"Don't ask me!" Herbert replied.
"Going off like this!" exclaimed Alice.
"Yes, my word!" exclaimed Herbert.
"But what are you to do?" Alice asked.
"Get the key from Bratt's, and get my box, if he hasn't had it carried
in to Bratt's already, and then wait for the cab to come."
"Just fancy him shutting you out of the house like that, and no
warning!" Alice said, shocked.
"Yes. You see he's very particular about his house. He's afraid I might
ruin it, I suppose. He's just like an old maid, you know, only a hundred
times worse." Herbert paused, as if suddenly gripped in a tremendous
conception. "I have it!" he stated positively. "I have it! I have it!"
"What?" Alice demanded.
"Suppose we spend our honeymoon here?"
"In this house?"
"In this house. It would serve him right."
Alice smiled humorously. "Then the house wouldn't get damp," she said.
"And there would be a great saving of expense. We could buy those two
easy-chairs with what we saved."
"Exactly," said Herbert. "And after all, seaside lodgings, you know....
And this house isn't so bad either."
"But if he came back and caught us?" Alice suggested.
"Well, he couldn't eat us!" said Herbert.
The clear statement of this truth emboldened Alice. "And he'd no right
to turn you out!" she said in wifely indignation.
Without another word Herbert went into Bratt's and got the keys. Then
the cab came up with Alice's luggage lashed to the roof, and the driver,
astounded, had to assist in carrying it into Si's house. He was then
dismissed, and not with a bouncing tip either. We are in the Five Towns.
He got a reasonable tip, no more. The Bratts, vastly intrigued, looked
Herbert banged the door and faced Alice in the lobby across her chief
trunk. The honeymoon had commenced.
"We'd better get this out of the way at once," said Alice the practical.
And between them they carried it upstairs, Alice, in the intervals of
tugs, making favourable remarks about the cosiness of the abode.
"This is uncle's bedroom," said Herbert, showing the front bedroom, a
really spacious and dignified chamber full of spacious and dignified
furniture, and not a pin out of place in it.
"What a funny room!" Alice commented. "But it's very nice."
"And this is mine," said Herbert, showing the back bedroom, much
inferior in every way.
When the trunk had been carried into the front bedroom, Herbert
descended for the other things, including his own luggage; and Alice
took off her hat and jacket and calmly laid them on Silas's ample bed,
gazed into all Silas's cupboards and wardrobes that were not locked,
patted her hair in front of Silas's looking-glass, and dropped a hairpin
on Silas's floor.
She then kneeled down over her chief trunk, and the vision of her
rummaging in the trunk in his uncle's bedroom was the most beautiful
thing that Herbert had ever seen. Whether it was because the light
caught her brown hair, or because she seemed so strange there and yet so
deliciously at home, or because--Anyhow, she fished a plain white apron
out of the trunk and put it on over her grey dress. And the quick,
graceful, enchanting movements with which she put the apron on--well,
they made Herbert feel that he had only that moment begun to live. He
walked away wondering what was the matter with him. If you imagine that
he ran up to her and kissed her you imagine a vain thing; you do not
understand that complex and capricious organism, the masculine heart.
The wedding breakfast consisted of part of a leg of mutton that Jane
Sarah had told the Bratts they might have, pikelets purchased from a
street hawker, coffee, scrambled eggs, biscuits, butter, burgundy out of
the cellar, potatoes out of the cellar, cheese, sardines, and a custard
that Alice made with custard-powder. Herbert had to go out to buy the
bread, the butter, the sardines and some milk; when he returned with
these purchases, a portion of the milk being in his breast pocket, Alice
checked them, and exhibited a mild surprise that he had not done
something foolish, and told him to clear out of "her kitchen."
Her kitchen was really the back kitchen or scullery. The proper kitchen
had always been used as a dining-room. But Alice had set the table in
the parlour, at the front of the house, where food had never before been
eaten. At the first blush this struck Herbert as sacrilege; but Alice
said she didn't like the middle room, because it was dark and because
there was a china pig on the high mantelpiece; and really Herbert could
discover no reason for not eating in the parlour. So they ate in the
parlour. Before the marvellous repast was over Alice had rearranged all
the ornaments and chairs in that parlour, turned round the carpet, and
patted the window curtains into something new and strange. Herbert
frequently looked out of the window to see if his uncle was coming.
"Pity there's no dessert," said Herbert. It was three o'clock, and the
refection was drawing to a reluctant close.
"There is a dessert," said Alice. She ran upstairs, and came down with
her little black hand-bag, out of which she produced three apples and
four sponge-cakes, meant for the railway journey. Amazing woman! Yet in
resuming her seat she mistook Herbert's knee for her chair. Amazing
woman! Intoxicating mixture of sweet confidingness and unfailing
resource. And Si had wanted to prevent Herbert from marrying this pearl!
"Now I must wash up!" said she.
"I'll run out and telegraph to Jane Sarah to come back at once. I expect
she's gone to her sister's at Rat Edge. It's absurd for you to be doing
all the work like this." Thus Herbert.
"I can manage by myself till to-morrow," Alice decided briefly.
Then there was a rousing knock at the door, and Alice sprang up, as it
were, guiltily. Recovering herself with characteristic swiftness, she
went to the window and spied delicately out.
"It's Mrs Bratt," she whispered. "I'll go."
"Shall I go?" Herbert asked.
"No--I'll go," said Alice.
And she went--apron and all.
Herbert overheard the conversation.
"Oh!" Exclamation of feigned surprise from Mrs Bratt.
"Yes?" In tones of a politeness almost excessive.
"Is Mr Herbert meaning to come to our house to-night? That there
bedroom's all ready."
"I don't think so," said Alice. "I don't think so."
"I'm Mrs Herbert Roden," said Alice, primly.
"Oh! I beg pardon, miss--Mrs, that is--I'm sure. I didn't know--"
"No," said Alice. "The wedding was this morning."
"I'm sure I wish you both much happiness, you and Mr Herbert," said Mrs
Bratt, heartily. "If I had but known--"
"Thank you," said Alice, "I'll tell my husband."
And she shut the door on the entire world.
One evening, after tea, by gaslight, Herbert was reading the newspaper
in the parlour at Paddock Place, when he heard a fumbling with keys at
the front door. The rain was pouring down heavily outside. He hesitated
a moment. He was a brave man, but he hesitated a moment, for he had sins
on his soul, and he knew in a flash who was the fumbler at the front
door. Then he ran into the lobby, and at the same instant the door
opened and his long-lost uncle stood before him, a living shower-bath,
of which the tap could not be turned off.
"Well, uncle," he stammered, "how are--"
"Nay, my lad," Si stopped him, refusing his hand. "I'm too wet to touch.
Get along into th' back kitchen. If I mun make a pool I'll make it
there. So thou's taken possession o' my house!"
"Yes, uncle. You see--"
They were now in the back kitchen, or scullery, where a bright fire was
burning in a small range and a great kettle of water singing over it.
"Run and get us a blanket, lad," said Si, stopping Herbert again, and
turning up the gas.
"Ay, lad! A blanket. Art struck?"
When Herbert returned with the blanket Silas was spilling mustard out of
the mustard tin into a large zinc receptacle which he had removed from
the slop-stone to a convenient place on the floor in front of the fire.
Silas then poured the boiling water from the kettle into the receptacle,
and tested the temperature with his finger.
"Blazes!" he exclaimed, shaking his finger. "Fetch us the whisky, lad."
When Herbert returned a second time, Uncle Silas was sitting on a chair
wearing merely the immense blanket, which fell gracefully in rich folds
around him to the floor. From sundry escaping jets of steam Herbert was
able to judge that the zinc bath lay concealed somewhere within the
blanket. Si's clothes were piled on the deal table.
"I hanna' gotten my feet in yet," said Si. "They're resting on th' edge.
But I'll get 'em in in a minute. Oh! Blazes! Here! Mix us a glass o'
that, hot. And then get out that clothes-horse and hang my duds on it
nigh th' fire."
Herbert obeyed, as if in a dream.
"I canna do wi' another heavy cowd [cold] at my time o' life, and
there's only one way for to stop it. There! That'll do, lad. Let's have
a look at thee."
Herbert perched himself on a corner of the table. The vivacity of Silas
"Thou looks older, nephew," said Silas, sipping at the whisky, and
smacking his lips grimly.
"Do I? Well, you look younger, uncle, anyhow. You've shaved your beard
off, for one thing."
"Yes, and a pretty cold it give me, too! I'd carried that beard for
"Then why did you cut it off?"
"Because I had to, lad. But never mind that. So thou'st taken possession
o' my house?"
"It isn't your house any longer, uncle," said Herbert, determined to get
the worst over at once.
"Not my house any longer! Us'll see whether it inna' my house any
"If you go and disappear for a twelvemonth and more, uncle, and leave no
address, you must take the consequence. I never knew till after you'd
gone that you'd mortgaged this house for four hundred pounds to Callear,
"Who towd thee that?"
"Callear told me."
"Callear had no cause to be uneasy. I wrote him twice as his interest
'ud be all right when I come back."
"Yes, I know. But you didn't give any address. And he wanted his money
back. So he came to me."
"Wanted his money back!" cried Silas, splashing about in the hidden tub
and grimacing. "He had but just lent it me."
"Yes, but Tomkinson, his landlord, died, and he had the chance of buying
his premises from the executors. And so he wanted his money back."
"And what didst tell him, lad?"
"I told him I would take a transfer of the mort-gage."
"Thou! Hadst gotten four hundred pounds i' thy pocket, then?"
"Yes. And so I took a transfer."
"Bless us! This comes o'going away! But where didst find th' money?"
"And what's more," Herbert continued, evading the question, "as I
couldn't get my interest I gave you notice to repay, uncle, and as you
"Give me notice to repay! What the dev--? You hadna' got my address."
"I had your legal address--this house, and I left the notice for you in
the parlour. And as you didn't repay I--I took possession as mortgagee,
and now I'm--I'm foreclosing."
Silas stood up in the tub, staggered, furious, sweating. He would have
stepped out of the tub and done something to Herbert had not common
prudence and the fear of the blanket falling off restrained his passion.
There was left to him only one thing to do, and he did it. He sat down
"Bless us!" he repeated feebly.
"So you see," said Herbert.
"And thou'st been living here ever since--alone, wi' Jane Sarah?"
"Not exactly," Herbert replied. "With my wife."
Fully emboldened now, he related to his uncle the whole circumstances of
Whereupon, to his surprise, Silas laughed hilariously, hysterically, and
gulped down the remainder of the whisky.
"Where is her?" Silas demanded.
"I' my bedroom, I lay," said Silas.
Herbert nodded. "May be."
"And everything upside down!" proceeded Uncle Silas.
"No!" said Herbert. "We've put all your things in my old room."
"Have ye! Ye're too obliging, lad!" growled Silas. "And if it isn't
asking too much, where's that china pig as used to be on the
chimney-piece in th' kitchen there? Her's smashed it, eh?"
"No," said Herbert, mildly. "She's put it away in a cupboard. She didn't
"Ah! I was but wondering if ye'd foreclosed on th' pig too."
"Possibly a few things are changed," said Herbert. "But you know when a
woman takes into her head--"
"Ay, lad! Ay, lad! I know! It was th' same wi' my beard. It had for go.
Thou'st under the domination of a woman, and I can sympathize wi' thee."
Herbert gave a long, high whistle.
"So that's it?" he exclaimed. And he suddenly felt as if his uncle was
no longer an uncle but a brother.
"Yes," said Silas. "That's it. I'll tell thee. Pour some more hot water
in here. Dost remember when th' Carl Rosa Opera Company was at Theatre
Royal last year? I met her then. Her was one o' Venus's maidens i' th'
fust act o' _Tannhaeuser_, and her was a bridesmaid i' _Lohengrin_, and
Siebel i' _Faust_, and a cigarette girl i' summat else. But it was in
_Tannhaeuser_ as I fust saw her on the stage, and her struck me like
that." Silas clapped one damp hand violently on the other. "Miss Elsa
Venda was her stage name, but her was a widow, Mrs Parfitt, and had bin
for ten years. Seemingly her husband was of good family. Finest woman I
ever seed, nephew. And you'll say so. Her'd ha' bin a prima donna only
for jealousy. Fust time I spoke to her I thought I should ha' fallen
down. Steady with that water. Dost want for skin me alive? Yes, I
thought I should ha' fallen down. They call'n it love. You can call it
what ye'n a mind for call it. I nearly fell down."
"How did you meet her, uncle?" Herbert interposed, aware that his uncle
had not been accustomed to move in theatrical circles.
"How did I meet her? I met her by setting about to meet her. I had for
t' meet her. I got Harry Burisford, th' manager o' th' theatre thou
knowst, for t' introduce us. Then I give a supper, nephew--I give a
supper at Turk's Head, but private like."
"Was that the time when you were supposed to be at the Ratepayers'
Association every night?" Herbert asked blandly.
"It was, nephew," said Si, with equal blandness.
"Then no doubt those two visits to Manchester, afterwards--"
"Exactly," said Si. "Th' company went to Manchester and stopped there a
fortnight. I told her fair and square what I meant and what I was worth.
There was no beating about the bush wi' me. All her friends told her
she'd be a fool if she wouldn't have me. She said her'd write me yes or
no. Her didn't. Her telegraphed me from Sunderland for go and see her at
once. It was that morning as I left. I thought to be back in a couple o'
days and to tell thee as all was settled. But women! Women! Her had me
dangling after her from town to town for a week. I was determined to get
her, and get her I did, though it cost me my beard, and the best part o'
that four hundred. I married her i' Halifax, lad, and it were the best
day's work I ever did. You never seed such a woman. Big and plump--and
sing! By----! I never cared for singing afore. And her knows the world,
let me tell ye."
"You might have sent us word," said Herbert.
Silas grew reflective. "Ah!" he said. "I might--and I mightn't. I didn't
want Hanbridge chattering. I was trapesing wi' her from town to town
till her engagement was up--pretty near six months. Then us settled i'
rooms at Scarborough, and there was other things to think of. I couldn't
leave her. Her wouldna' let me. To-day was the fust free day I've had,
and so I run down to fix matters. And nice weather I've chosen! Her