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A MUMMER’S WIFE
BY GEORGE MOORE
A DEDICATION TO ROBERT ROSS
In the sunset of his life a man often finds himself unable to put dates even upon events in which his sympathies were, and perhaps are still, engaged; all things seem to have befallen yesterday, and yet it cannot be less than three years since we were anxious to testify to our belief in the kindness and justice with which you had fulfilled your double duties in the _Morning Post_ towards us and the proprietors of the paper.
A committee sprang up quickly, and a letter was addressed by it to all the notable workers in the arts and to all those who were known to be interested in the arts, and very soon a considerable sum of money was collected; but when the committee met to decide what form the commemorative gift should take, a perplexity arose, many being inclined towards a piece of plate. It was pointed out that a piece of plate worth eight hundred pounds would prove a cumbersome piece of furniture–a white elephant, in fact–in the small house or apartment or flat in which a critic usually lives. The truth of this could not be gainsaid. Other suggestions were forthcoming for your benefit, every one obtaining a certain amount of support, but none commanding a majority of votes; and the perplexity continued till it was mooted that the disposal of the money should be left to your option, and in view of the fact that you had filled the post of art critic for many years, you decided to found a Slade scholarship. It seemed to you well that a young man on leaving the Slade School should be provided with a sum of money sufficient to furnish a studio, and some seven or eight hundred pounds were invested, the remainder being spent on a trinket for your personal wear–a watch. I have not forgotten that I was one of the dissidents, scholarships not appealing to me, but lately I have begun to see that you were wise in the disposal of the money. A watch was enough for remembrance, and since I caught sight of it just now, the pleasant thoughts it has evoked console me for your departure: after bidding you good-bye on the doorstep, I return to my fireside to chew the cud once again of the temperate and tolerant articles that I used to read years ago in the _Morning Post_.
You see, Ross, I was critic myself for some years on the _Speaker_, but my articles were often bitter and explosive; I was prone to polemics and lacked the finer sense that enabled you to pass over works with which you were not in sympathy, and without wounding the painter. My intention was often to wound him in the absurd hope that I might compel him to do better. My motto seems to have been ‘Compel them to come in’–words used by Jesus in one of his parables, and relied on by ecclesiastics as a justification of persecution, and by many amongst us whose names I will not pillory here, for I have chosen that these pages shall be about you and nothing but you. If I speak of myself in a forgotten crusade, it is to place you in your true light. We recognized your critical insight and your literary skill, but it was not for these qualities that we, the criticized, decided to present you, the critic, with a token of our gratitude; nor was it because you had praised our works (a great number of the subscribers had not received praise from you): we were moved altogether, I think, by the consciousness that you had in a difficult task proved yourself to be a kindly critic, and yet a just one, and it was for these qualities that you received an honour, that is unique, I think, in the chronicles of criticism.
Memory pulls me up, and out of some moments of doubt, the suspicion emerges that all I am writing here was read by me somewhere: but it was not in our original declaration of faith, for I never saw it, not having attended the presentation of the testimonial. Where, then? In the newspapers that quoted from the original document? Written out by whom? By Witt or by MacColl, excellent writers both? But being a writer myself, I am called upon to do my own writing…. Newspapers are transitory things–a good reason for writing out the story afresh; and there is still another reason for writing it out–my reasons for dedicating this book to you. We must have reasons always, else we pass for unreasonable beings, and a better reason for dedicating a book to you than mine, I am fain to believe, will never be found by anybody in search of a reason for his actions. My name is among the signatories to the document that I have called ‘our declaration of faith’; and having committed myself thus fully to your critical judgment, it seems to me that for the completion of the harmony a dedication is necessary. A fair share of reasons I am setting forth for this act of mine, every one of them valid, and the most valid of all my reason for choosing this book, _A Mummer’s Wife_, to dedicate to you, is your own commendation of it the other night when you said to me that no book of mine in your opinion was more likely to ‘live’! To live for five-and-twenty years is as long an immortality as anyone should set his heart on; for who would wish to be chattered about by the people that will live in these islands three hundred years hence? We should not understand them nor they us. Avaunt, therefore, all legendary immortalities, and let us be content, Ross, to be remembered by our friends, and, perhaps, to have our names passed on by disciples to another generation! A fair and natural immortality this is; let us share it together. Our bark lies in the harbour: you tell me the spars are sound, and the seams have been caulked; the bark, you say, is seaworthy and will outlive any of the little storms that she may meet on the voyage–a better craft is not to be found in my little fleet. You said yesterevening across the hearthrug, ‘_Esther Waters_ speaks out of a deeper appreciation of life;’ but you added: ‘In _A Mummer’s Wife_ there is a youthful imagination and a young man’s exuberance on coming into his own for the first time, and this is a quality–‘No doubt it is a quality, Ross; but what kind of quality? You did not finish your sentence, or I have forgotten it. Let me finish it for you–‘that outweighs all other qualities’ But does it? I am interpreting you badly. You would not commit yourself to so crude an opinion, and I am prepared to believe that I did not catch the words as they fell from your lips. All I can recall for certain of the pleasant moment when, you were considering which of my works you liked the best are stray words that may be arranged here into a sentence which, though it does not represent your critical judgments accurately, may be accepted by you. You said your thoughts went more frequently to _A Mummer’s Wife_ than to _Esther Waters_; and I am almost sure something was said about the earlier book being a more spontaneous issue of the imagination, and that the wandering life of the mummers gives an old-world, adventurous air to the book, reminding you of _The Golden Ass_–a book I read last year, and found in it so many remembrances of myself that I fell to thinking it was a book I might have written had I lived two thousand years ago. Who can say he has not lived before, and is it not as important to believe we lived herebefore as it is to believe we are going to live hereafter? If I had lived herebefore, Jupiter knows what I should have written, but it would not have been _Esther Waters_: more likely a book like _A Mummer’s Wife_–a band of jugglers and acrobats travelling from town to town. As I write these lines an antique story rises up in my mind, a recollection of one of my lost works or an instantaneous reading of Apuleius into _A Mummers Wife_–which?
A MUMMMER’S WIFE
In default of a screen, a gown and a red petticoat had been thrown over a clothes-horse, and these shaded the glare of the lamp from the eyes of the sick man. In the pale obscurity of the room, his bearded cheeks could be seen buried in a heap of tossed pillows. By his bedside sat a young woman. As she dozed, her face drooped until her features were hidden, and the lamp-light made the curious curves of a beautiful ear look like a piece of illuminated porcelain. Her hands lay upon her lap, her needlework slipped from them; and as it fell to the ground she awoke.
She pressed her hands against her forehead and made an effort to rouse herself. As she did so, her face contracted with an expression of disgust, and she remembered the ether. The soft, vaporous odour drifted towards her from a small table strewn with medicine bottles, and taking care to hold the cork tightly in her fingers she squeezed it into the bottle.
At that moment the clock struck eleven and the clear tones of its bell broke the silence sharply; the patient moaned as if in reply, and his thin hairy arms stirred feverishly on the wide patchwork counterpane. She took them in her hands and covered them over; she tried to arrange the pillows more comfortably, but as she did so he turned and tossed impatiently, and, fearing to disturb him, she put back the handkerchief she had taken from the pillow to wipe the sweat from his brow, and regaining her chair, with a weary movement she picked up the cloth that had fallen from her knees and slowly continued her work.
It was a piece of patchwork like the counterpane on the bed; the squares of a chessboard had been taken as a design, and, selecting a fragment of stuff, she trimmed it into the required shape and sewed it into its allotted corner.
Nothing was now heard but the methodical click of her needle as it struck the head of her thimble, and then the long swish of the thread as she drew it through the cloth. The lamp at her elbow burned steadily, and the glare glanced along her arm as she raised it with the large movement of sewing.
Her hair was blue wherever the light touched it, and it encircled the white prominent temple like a piece of rich black velvet; a dark shadow defined the delicate nose, and hinted at thin indecision of lips, whilst a broad touch of white marked the weak but not unbeautiful chin.
On the corner of the table lay a book, a well-worn volume in a faded red paper cover. It was a novel she used to read with delight when she was a girl, but it had somehow failed to interest her, and after a few pages she had laid it aside, preferring for distraction her accustomed sewing. She was now well awake, and, as she worked, her thoughts turned on things concerning the daily routine of her life. She thought of the time when her husband would be well: of the pillow she was making; of how nice it would look in the green armchair; of the much greater likelihood of letting their rooms if they were better furnished; of their new lodger; and of the probability of a quarrel between him and her mother-in-law, Mrs. Ede.
For more than a week past the new lodger had formed the staple subject of conversation in this household. Mrs. Ede, Kate’s mother-in-law, was loud in her protestations that the harbouring of an actor could not but be attended by bad luck. Kate felt a little uneasy; her puritanism was of a less marked kind; perhaps at first she had felt inclined to agree with her mother-in-law, but her husband had shown himself so stubborn, and had so persistently declared that he was not going to keep his rooms empty any longer, that for peace’ sake she was fain to side with him. The question arose in a very unexpected way. During the whole winter they were unfortunate with their rooms, though they made many attempts to get lodgers; they even advertised. Some few people asked to see the rooms; but they merely made an offer. One day a man who came into the shop to buy some paper collars asked Kate if she had any apartments to let. She answered yes, and they went upstairs. After a cursory inspection he told her that he was the agent in advance to a travelling opera company, and that if she liked he would recommend her rooms to the stage manager, a particular friend of his. The proposition was somewhat startling, but, not liking to say no, she proposed to refer the matter to her husband.
At that particular moment Ede happened to be engaged in a violent dispute with his mother, and so angry was he that when Mrs. Ede raised her hands to protest against the introduction of an actor into the household, he straightway told her that ‘if she didn’t like it she might do the other thing.’ Nothing more was said at the time; the old lady retired in indignation, and Mr. Lennox was written to. Kate sympathized alternately with both sides. Mrs. Ede was sturdy in defence of her principles; Ede was petulant and abusive; and between the two Kate was blown about like a feather in a storm. Daily the argument waxed warmer, until one night, in the middle of a scene characterized by much Biblical quotation, Ede declared he could stand it no longer, and rushed out of the house. In vain the women tried to stop him, knowing well what the consequences would be. A draught, a slight exposure, sufficed to give him a cold, and with him a cold always ended in an asthmatic attack. And these were often so violent as to lay him up for weeks at a time. When he returned, his temper grown cooler under the influence of the night air, he was coughing, and the next night found him breathless. His anger had at first vented itself against his mother, whom he refused to see, and thus the whole labour of nursing him was thrown on Kate, She didn’t grumble at this, but it was terrible to have to listen to him.
It was Mr. Lennox, and nothing but Mr. Lennox. All the pauses in the suffocation were utilized to speak on this important question, and even now Kate, who had not yet perceived that the short respite which getting rid of the phlegm had given him was coming to an end, expected him to say something concerning the still unknown person. But Ede did not speak, and, to put herself as it were out of suspense, she referred to some previous conversation:
‘I’m sure you’re right; the only people in the town who let their rooms are those who have a theatrical connection.’
‘Oh, I don’t care; I’m going to have a bad night,’ said Mr. Ede, who now thought only of how he should get his next breath.
‘But you seemed to be getting better,’ she replied hurriedly.
‘No! I feel it coming on–I’m suffocating. Have you got the ether?’
Kate did not answer, but made a rapid movement towards the table, and snatching the bottle she uncorked it. The sickly odour quietly spread like oil over the close atmosphere of the room, but, mastering her repugnance, she held it to him, and in the hope of obtaining relief he inhaled it greedily. But the remedy proved of no avail, and he pushed the bottle away.
‘Oh, these headaches! My head is splitting,’ he said, after a deep inspiration which seemed as if it would cost him his life. ‘Nothing seems to do me any good. Have you got any cigarettes?’
‘I’m sorry, they haven’t arrived yet. I wrote for them,’ she replied, hesitating; ‘but don’t you think–?’
He shook his head; and, resenting Kate’s assiduities, with trembling fingers he unfastened the shawl she had placed on his shoulders, and then, planting his elbows on his knees, with a fixed head and elevated shoulders, he gave himself up to the struggle of taking breath…. At that moment she would have laid down her life to save him from the least of his pains, but she could only sit by him watching the struggle, knowing that nothing could be done to relieve him. She had seen the same scene repeated a hundred times before, but it never seemed to lose any of its terror. In the first month of their marriage she had been frightened by one of these asthmatic attacks. It had come on in the middle of the night, and she remembered well how she had prayed to God that it should not be her fate to see her husband die before her eyes. She knew now that death was not to be apprehended–the paroxysm would wear itself out–but she knew also of the horrors that would have to be endured before the time of relief came. She could count them upon her fingers–she could see it all as in a vision–a nightmare that would drag out its long changes until the dawn began to break; she anticipated the hours of the night.
‘Air! Air! I’m suff-o-cating!’ he sobbed out with a desperate effort.
Kate ran to the window and threw it open. The paroxysm had reached its height, and, resting his elbows well on his knees, he gasped many times, but before the inspiration was complete his strength failed him. No want but that of breath could have forced him to try again; and the second effort was even more terrible than the first. A great upheaval, a great wrenching and rocking seemed to be going on within him; the veins on his forehead were distended, the muscles of his chest laboured, and it seemed as if every minute were going to be his last. But with a supreme effort he managed to catch breath, and then there was a moment of respite, and Kate could see that he was thinking of the next struggle, for he breathed avariciously, letting the air that had cost him so much agony pass slowly through his lips. To breathe again he would have to get on to his feet, which he did, and so engrossed was he in the labour of breathing that he pushed the paraffin lamp roughly; it would have fallen had Kate not been there to catch it. She besought of him to say what he wanted, but he made no reply, and continued to drag himself from one piece of furniture to another, till at last, grasping the back of a chair, he breathed by jerks, each inspiration being accompanied by a violent spasmodic wrench, violent enough to break open his chest. She watched, expecting every moment to see him roll over, a corpse, but knowing from past experiences that he would recover somehow. His recoveries always seemed to her like miracles, and she watched the long pallid face crushed under a shock of dark matted hair, a dirty nightshirt, a pair of thin legs; but for the moment the grandeur of human suffering covered him, lifting him beyond the pale of loving or loathing, investing and clothing him in the pity of tragic things. The room, too, seemed transfigured. The bare wide floor, the gaunt bed, the poor walls plastered with religious prints cut from journals, even the ordinary furniture of everyday use–the little washhandstand with the common delf ewer, the chest of drawers that might have been bought for thirty shillings–lost their coarseness; their triviality disappeared, until nothing was seen or felt but this one suffering man.
The minutes slipped like the iron teeth of a saw over Kate’s sensibilities. A hundred times she had run over in her mind the list of remedies she had seen him use. They were few in number, and none of any real service except the cigarettes which she had not. She asked him to allow her to try iodine, but he could not or would not make her any answer. It was cruel to see him struggling, but he resisted assistance, and watching like one in a dream, frightened at her own powerlessness to save or avert, Kate remained crouching by the fireplace without strength to think or act, until she was suddenly awakened by seeing him relax his hold and slip heavily on the floor; and it was only by putting forth her whole strength she could get him into a sitting position; when she attempted to place him in a chair he slipped through her arms. There was, therefore, nothing to do but to shriek for help, and hope to awaken her mother-in-law. The echoes rang through the house, and as they died away, appalled, she listened to the silence.
At length it grew clear that Mrs. Ede could not be awakened, and Kate saw that she would have to trust to herself alone, and after two or three failures she applied herself to winning him back to consciousness. It was necessary to do so before attempting to move him again, and, sprinkling his face with water, she persuaded him to open his eyes, and after one little stare he slipped back into the nothingness he had come out of; and this was repeated several times, Kate redoubling her efforts until at last she succeeded in placing him in a chair. He sat there, still striving and struggling with his breath, unable to move, and soaked with sweat, but getting better every minute. The worst of the attack was now over; she buttoned his nightshirt across his panting chest and covered his shoulders with his red shawl once more, and with a sentiment of real tenderness she took his hand in hers. She looked at him, feeling her heart grow larger.
He was her husband; he had suffered terribly, and was now getting better; and she was his wife, whose duty it was to attend him. She only wished he would allow her to love him a little better; but against her will facts pierced through this luminous mist of sentiment, and she could not help remembering how petulant he was with her, how utterly all her wishes were disregarded. ‘What a pity he’s not a little different!’ she thought; but when she looked at him and saw how he suffered, all other thoughts were once more drowned and swept away. She forgot how he often rendered her life miserable, wellnigh unbearable, by small vices, faults that defy definition, unending selfishness and unceasing irritability. But now all dissatisfaction and bitternesses were again merged into a sentiment that was akin to love; and in this time of physical degradation he possessed her perhaps more truly, more perfectly, than even in his best moments of health.
But her life was one of work, not of musing, and there was plenty for her to attend to. Ralph would certainly not be able to leave his chair for some time yet; she had wrapped him up comfortably in a blanket, she could do no more, and whilst he was recovering it would be as well to tidy up the room a bit. He would never be able to sleep in a bed that he had been lying in all day; she had better make the bed at once, for he generally got a little ease towards morning, particularly after a bad attack. So, hoping that the present occasion would not prove an exception, Kate set to work to make the bed. She resolved to do this thoroughly, and turning the mattress over, she shook it with all her force. She did the same with the pillows, and fearing that there might be a few crumbs sticking to the sheets, she shook them out several times; and when the last crease had been carefully smoothed away she went back to her husband and insisted on being allowed to paint his back with iodine, although he did not believe in the remedy. On his saying he was thirsty, she went creeping down the narrow stairs to the kitchen, hunted for matches in the dark, lighted a spirit lamp and made him a hot drink, which he drank without thanking her. She fell to thinking of his ingratitude, and then of the discomfort of the asthma. How could she expect him to think of her when he was thinking of his breath? All the same, on these words her waking thoughts must have passed into dream thoughts. She was still watching by his bedside, waiting to succour him whenever he should ask for help, yet she must have been asleep. She did not know how long she slept, but it could not have been for long; and there was no reason for his peevishness, for she had not left him.
‘I’m sorry, Ralph, but I could not help it, I was so very tired. What can I do for you, dear?’
‘Do for me?’ he said–‘why, shut the window. I might have died for all you would have known or cared.’
She walked across the room and shut the window, but as she came back to her place she said, ‘I don’t know why you speak to me like that, Ralph.’
‘Prop me up: if I lie so low I shall get bad again. If you had a touch of this asthma you’d know what it is to lie alone for hours.’
‘For hours, Ralph?’ Kate repeated, and she looked at the clock and saw that she had not been asleep for more than half an hour. Without contradicting him–for of what use would that be, only to make matters worse?–she arranged the pillows and settled the blankets about him, and thinking it would be advisable to say something, she congratulated him on seeming so much better.
‘Better! If I’m better, it’s no thanks to you,’ he said. ‘You must have been mad to leave the window open so long.’
‘You wanted it open; you know very well that when you’re very bad like that you must have change of air. The room was so close.’
‘Yes, but that is no reason for leaving it open half an hour.’
‘I offered to shut it, and you wouldn’t let me.’
‘I dare say you’re sick of nursing me, and would like to get rid of me. The window wasn’t a bad dodge.’
Kate remained silent, being too indignant for the moment to think of replying; but it was evident from her manner that she would not be able to contain herself much longer. He had hurt her to the quick, and her brown eyes swam with tears. His head lay back upon the built-up pillows, he fumed slowly, trying to find new matter for reproach, and breath wherewith to explain it. At last he thought of the cigarettes.
‘Even supposing that you did not remember how long you left the window open, I cannot understand how you forgot to send for the cigarettes. You know well enough that smoking is the only thing that relieves me when I’m in this state. I think it was most unfeeling–yes, most unfeeling!’ Having said so much, he leaned forward to get breath, and coughed.
‘You’d better lie still, Ralph; you’ll only make yourself bad again. Now that you feel a little easier you should try to go to sleep.’
So far she got without betraying any emotion, but as she continued to advise him her voice began to tremble, her presence of mind to forsake her, and she burst into a flood of tears.
‘I don’t know how you can treat me as you do,’ she said, sobbing hysterically. ‘I do everything–I give up my night’s rest to you, I work hard all day for you, and in return I only receive hard words. Oh, it’s no use,’ she said; ‘I can bear it no longer; you’ll have to get someone else to mind you.’
This outburst of passion came suddenly upon Mr. Ede, and for some time he was at a loss how to proceed. At last, feeling a little sorry, he resolved to make it up, and putting out his hand to her, he said:
‘Now, don’t cry, Kate; perhaps I was wrong in speaking so crossly. I didn’t mean all I said–it’s this horrid asthma.’
‘Oh, I can bear anything but to be told I neglect you–and when I stop up watching you three nights running—-‘
These little quarrels were of constant occurrence. Irritable by nature, and rendered doubly so by the character of his complaint, the invalid at times found it impossible to restrain his ill-humour; but he was not entirely bad; he inherited a touch of kind-heartedness from his mother, and being now moved by Kate’s tears, he said:
That’s quite true, and I’m sorry for what I said; you are a good little nurse. I won’t scold you again. Make it up.’
Kate found it hard to forget merely because Ralph desired it, and for some time she refused to listen to his expostulations, and walked about the room crying, but her anger could not long resist the dead weight of sleep that was oppressing her, and eventually she came and sat down in her own place by him. The next step to reconciliation was more easy. Kate was not vindictive, although quicktempered, and at last, amid some hysterical sobbing, peace was restored. Ralph began to speak of his asthma again, telling how he had fancied he was going to die, and when she expressed her fear and regret he hastened to assure her that no one ever died of asthma that a man might live fifty, sixty, or seventy years, suffering all the while from the complaint; and he rambled on until words and ideas together failed him, and he fell asleep. With a sigh of relief Kate rose to her feet, and seeing that he was settled for the night, she turned to leave him, and passed into her room with a slow and dragging movement; but the place had a look so cold and unrestful that it pierced through even her sense of weariness, and she stood urging her tired brains to think of what she should do. At last, remembering that she could get a pillow from the room they reserved for letting, she turned to go.
Facing their room, and only divided by the very narrowest of passages, was the stranger’s apartment.
Both doors were approached by a couple of steps, which so reduced the space that were two people to meet on the landing, one would have to give way to the other. Mr. and Mrs. Ede found this proximity to their lodger, when they had one, somewhat inconvenient, but, as he said, ‘One doesn’t get ten shillings a week for nothing.’
Kate lingered a moment on the threshold, and then, with the hand in which she held the novel she had been reading, she picked up her skirt and stepped across the way.
At first she could not determine who was passing through the twilight of the room, but as the blinds were suddenly drawn up and a flood of sunlight poured across the bed, she fell back amid the pillows, having recognized her mother-in-law in a painful moment of semi-blindness. The old woman carried a slop-pail, which she nearly dropped, so surprised was she to find Kate in the stranger’s room.
‘But how did you get here?’ she said hastily.
‘I had to give Ralph my pillow, and when he went to sleep I came to fetch one out of the bedroom here; and then I thought I would be more comfortable here–I was too tired to go back again–I don’t know how it was–what does it matter?’
Kate, who was stupefied with sleep, had answered so crossly that Mrs. Ede did not speak for some time; at last, at the end of a long silence, she said:
‘Then he had a very bad night?’
‘Dreadful!’ returned Kate. ‘I never was so frightened in my life.’
‘And how did the fit come on?’ asked Mrs. Ede.
‘Oh, I can’t tell you now,’ said Kate. ‘I’m so tired. I’m aching all over.’
‘Well, then, I’ll bring you up your breakfast. You do look tired. It will do you good to remain in bed.’
‘Bring me up my breakfast! Then, what time is it?’ said Kate, sitting up in bed with a start.
‘What does it matter what the time is? If you’re tired, lie still; I’ll see that everything is right.’
‘But I’ve promised Mrs. Barnes her dress by tomorrow night. Oh, my goodness! I shall never get it done! Do tell me what time it is.’
‘Well, it’s just nine,’ the old woman answered apologetically; ‘but Mrs. Barnes will have to wait; you can’t kill yourself. It’s a great shame of Ralph to have you sitting up when I could look after him just as well, and all because of the mummer.’
‘Oh, don’t, mother,’ said Kate, who knew that Mrs. Ede could rate play-actors for a good half-hour without feeling the time passing, and taking her mother-in-law’s hands in hers, she looked earnestly in her face, saying:
‘You know, mother, I have a hard time of it, and I try to bear up as well as I can. You’re the only one I’ve to help me; don’t turn against me. Ralph has set his mind on having the rooms let, and the mummer, as you call him, is coming here to-day; it’s all settled. Promise me you’ll do nothing to unsettle it, and that while Mr. Lennox is here you’ll try to make him comfortable. I’ve my dressmaking to attend to, and can’t be always after him. Will you do this thing for me?’ and after a moment or so of indecision Mrs. Ede said:
‘I don’t believe money made out of such people can bring luck, but since you both wish it, I suppose I must give way. But you won’t be able to say I didn’t warn you.’
‘Yes, yes, but since we can’t prevent his coming, will you promise that whilst he’s here you’ll attend to him just as you did to the other gentleman?’
‘I shall say nothing to him, and if he doesn’t make the house a disgrace, I shall be well satisfied.’
‘How do you mean a disgrace?’
‘Don’t you know, dear, that actors have always a lot of women after them, and I for one am not going to attend on wenches like them. If I had my way I’d whip such people until I slashed all the wickedness out of them.’
‘But he won’t bring any women here; we won’t allow it,’ said Kate, a little shocked, and she strove to think how they should put a stop to such behaviour. ‘If Mr. Lennox doesn’t conduct himself properly–‘
‘Of course I shall try to do my duty, and if Mr. Lennox respects himself I shall try to respect him.’
She spoke these words hesitatingly, but the admission that she possibly might respect Mr. Lennox satisfied Kate, and not wishing to press the matter further, she said, suddenly referring to their previous conversation:
‘But didn’t you say that it was nine o’clock?’
‘It’s more than nine now.’
‘Oh, Lord! oh, Lord! how late I am! I suppose the two little girls are here?’
‘They just came in as I was going upstairs; I’ve set them to work.’
‘I wish you’d get the tea ready, and you might make some buttered toast; Ralph would like some, and so should I, for the matter of that.’
Then Ralph’s voice was heard calling, and seeing what was wanted, she hastened to his assistance.
‘Where were you last night?’ he asked her.
‘I slept in the stranger’s room; I thought you’d not require me, and I was more comfortable there. The bed in the back room is all ups and downs.’
He was breathing heavily in a way that made her fear he was going to have another attack.
‘Is mother in a great rage because I won’t let her in?’ he said presently.
‘She’s very much cut up about it, dear; you know she loves you better than anyone in the world. You’d do well to make it up with her.’
‘Well, perhaps I was wrong,’ he said after a time, and with good humour, ‘but she annoys me. She will interfere in everything; as if I hadn’t a right to let my rooms to whom I please. She pays for all she has here, but I’d much sooner she left us than be lorded over in that way.’
‘She doesn’t want to lord it over you, dear. It’s all arranged. She promised me just now she’d say nothing more about it, and that she’d look after Mr. Lennox like any other lodger.’
On hearing that his mother was willing to submit to his will, the invalid smiled and expressed regret that the presence of an extra person in the house, especially an actor, would give his wife and mother more work to do.
‘But I shall soon be well,’ he said, ‘and I dare say downstairs looking after the shop in a week.’
Kate protested against such imprudence, and then suggested she should go and see after his breakfast. Ralph proffered no objection, and bidding him goodbye for the present, she went downstairs. Annie was helping Mrs. Ede to make the toast in the front kitchen; Lizzie stood at the table buttering it, but as soon as Kate entered they returned to their sewing, for it was against Kate’s theories that the apprentices should assist in the household work.
‘Dear mother,’ she began, but desisted, and when all was ready Mrs. Ede, remembering she had to make peace with her son, seized the tray and went upstairs. And the moment she was gone Kate seated herself wearily on the red, calico-covered sofa. Like an elongated armchair, it looked quaint, neat, and dumpy, pushed up against the wall between the black fireplace on the right and the little window shaded with the muslin blinds, under which a pot of greenstuff bloomed freshly. She lay back thinking vaguely, her cup of hot tea uppermost in her mind, hoping that Mrs. Ede would not keep her waiting long; and then, as her thoughts detached themselves, she remembered the actor whom they expected that afternoon. The annoyances which he had unconsciously caused her had linked him to her in a curious way, and all her prejudices vanished in the sensation of nearness that each succeeding hour magnified, and she wondered who this being was who had brought so much trouble into her life even before she had seen him. As the word ‘trouble’ went through her mind she paused, arrested by a passing feeling of sentimentality; but it explained nothing, defined nothing, only touched her as a breeze does a flower, and floated away. The dreamy warmth of the fire absorbed her more direct feelings, and for some moments she dozed in a haze of dim sensuousness and emotive numbness. As in a dusky glass, she saw herself a tender, loving, but unhappy woman; by her side were her querulous husband and her kindly-minded mother-in-law, and then there was a phantom she could not determine, and behind it something into which she could not see. Was it a distant country? Was it a scene of revelry? Impossible to say, for whenever she attempted to find definite shapes in the glowing colours they vanished in a blurred confusion.
But amid these fleeting visions there was one shape that particularly interested her, and she pursued it tenaciously, until in a desperate effort to define its features she awoke with a start and spoke more crossly than she intended to the little girls, who had pulled aside the curtain and were intently examining the huge theatrical poster that adorned the corner of the lane. But as she scolded she could not help smiling; for she saw how her dream had been made out of the red and blue dresses of the picture.
The arrival of each new company in the town was announced pictorially on this corner wall, and, in the course of the year, many of the vicissitudes to which human life is liable received illustration upon it. Wrecks at sea, robberies on the highways, prisoners perishing in dungeons, green lanes and lovers, babies, glowing hearths, and heroic young husbands. The opera companies exhibited the less serious sides of life–strangely dressed people and gallants kissing their hands to ladies standing on balconies.
The little girls examined these pictures and commented on them; and on Saturdays it was a matter of the keenest speculation what the following week would bring them. Lizzie preferred exciting scenes of murder and arson, while Annie was moved more by leavetakings and declarations of unalterable affection. These differences of taste often gave rise to little bickerings, and last week there had been much prophesying as to whether the tragic or the sentimental element would prove next week’s attraction. Lizzie had voted for robbers and mountains, Annie for lovers and a nice cottage. And, remembering their little dispute, Kate said:
“Well, dears, is it a robber or a sweetheart?”
“We’re not sure,” exclaimed both children in a disappointed tone of voice; “we can’t make the picture out.” Then Lizzie, who cared little for uncertainties, said:
“It isn’t a nice picture at all; it is all mixed up.”
“Not a nice picture at all, and all mixed up?” said Kate, smiling, yet interested in the conversation. “And all mixed up; how is that? I must see if I can make it out myself.”
The huge poster contained some figures nearly life-size. It showed a young girl in a bridal dress and wreath struggling between two police agents, who were arresting her in a marketplace of old time, in a strangely costumed crowd, which was clamouring violently. The poor bridegroom was being held back by his friends; a handsome young man in knee-breeches and a cocked hat watched the proceedings cynically in the right-hand corner, whilst on the left a big fat man frantically endeavoured to recover his wig, that had been lost in the melee. The advertisement was headed, “Morton and Cox’s Operatic Company,” and concluded with the announcement that _Madame Angot_ would be played at the Queen’s Theatre. After a few moments spent in examining the picture Kate said it must have something to do with France.
“I know what it means,” cried Lizzie; “you see that old chap on the right? He’s the rich man who has sent the two policemen to carry the bride to his castle, and it’s the young fellow in the corner who has betrayed them.”
The ingenuity of this explanation took Kate and Annie so much by surprise that for the moment they could not attempt to controvert it, and remained silent, whilst Lizzie looked at them triumphantly. The more they examined the picture the more clear did it appear that Lizzie was right. At the end of a long pause Kate said:
‘Anyhow, we shall soon know, for one of the actors of the company is coming here to lodge, and we’ll ask him.’
‘A real actor coming here to lodge?’ exclaimed Annie. ‘Oh, how nice that will be! And will he take us to see the play?’
‘How silly of you, Annie!’ said Lizzie, who, proud of her successful explanation of the poster, was a little inclined to think she knew all about actors. ‘How can he take us to the play? Isn’t he going to act it himself? But do tell me, Mrs. Ede–is he the one in the cocked hat?’
‘I hope he isn’t the fat man who has lost his wig,’ Annie murmured under her breath.
‘I don’t know which of those gentlemen is coming here. For all I know it may be the policeman’ Kate added maliciously.
‘Don’t say that, Mrs. Ede!’ Annie exclaimed.
Kate smiled at the children’s earnestness, and, wishing to keep up the joke, said:
‘You know, my dear, they are only sham policemen, and I dare say are very nice gentlemen in reality.’
Annie and Lizzie hung down their heads; it was evident they had no sympathies with policemen, not even with sham ones.
‘But if it isn’t a policeman, who would you like it to be, Lizzie?’ said Kate.
‘Oh, the man in the cocked hat.’ replied Lizzie without hesitation.
‘And you, Annie?’
Annie looked puzzled, and after a moment said with a slight whimper;
‘Lizzie always takes what I want–I was just going–‘
‘Oh yes, miss, we know all about that,’ returned Lizzie derisively. ‘Annie never can choose for herself; she always tries to imitate me. She’ll have the man who’s lost his wig! Oh yes, yes! Isn’t it so, Mrs. Ede? Isn’t Annie going to marry the man who’s lost his wig?’
Tears trembled in Annie’s eyes, but as she happened at that moment to catch sight of the young man in white, she declared triumphantly that she would choose him.
‘Well done, Annie!’ said Kate, laughing as she patted the child’s curls, but her eyes fell on the neglected apron, and seeing how crookedly it was being hemmed, she said:
‘Oh, my dear, this is very bad; you must go back, undo all you have done this morning, and get it quite straight.’
She undid some three or four inches of the sewing, and then showed the child how the hem was to be turned in, and while she did so a smile hovered round the corners of her thin lips, for she was thinking of the new lodger, asking herself which man in the picture was coming to lodge in her house.
Mrs. Ede returned, talking angrily, but Kate could only catch the words ‘waiting’ and ‘breakfast cold’ and ‘sorry.’ At last, out of a confusion of words a reproof broke from her mother-in-law for not having roused her.
‘I called and called,’ said Kate, ‘but nothing would have awakened you.’
‘You should have knocked at my door,’ Mrs. Ede answered, and after speaking about open house and late hours she asked Kate suddenly what was going to be done about the latchkey.
‘I suppose he will have to have his latchkey,’ Kate answered.
‘I shall not close my eyes,’ Mrs. Ede returned, ‘until I hear him come into the house. He won’t be bringing with him any of the women from the theatre.’
Kate assured her that she would make this part of the bargain, and somewhat softened, Mrs. Ede spoke of the danger of bad company, and trusted that having an actor in the house would not be a reason for going to the theatre and falling into idle habits.
‘One would have thought that we heard enough of that theatre from Miss Hender,’ she interjected, and then lapsed into silence.
Miss Hender, Kate’s assistant, was one of Mrs. Ede’s particular dislikes. Of her moral character Mrs. Ede had the gravest doubts; for what could be expected, she often muttered, of a person who turned up her nose when she was asked to stay and attend evening prayers, and who kept company with a stage carpenter?
Mrs. Ede did not cease talking of Hender till the girl herself came in, with many apologies for being an hour behind her time, and saying that she really could not help it; her sister had been very ill, and she had been obliged to sit up with her all night. Mrs. Ede smiled at this explanation, and withdrew, leaving Kate in doubt as to the truth of the excuse put forward by her assistant; but remembering that Mrs. Barnes’s dress had been promised for Tuesday morning, she said:
‘Come, we’re wasting all the morning; we must get on with Mrs. Barnes’s dress,’ and a stout, buxom, carroty-haired girl of twenty followed Kate upstairs, thinking of the money she might earn and of how she and the stage carpenter might spend it together. She was always full of information concerning the big red house in Queen Street. She was sure that the hours in the workroom would not seem half so long if Kate would wake up a bit, go to the play, and chat about what was going on in the town. How anyone could live with that horrid old woman always hanging about, with her religion and salvation, was beyond her. She hadn’t time for such things, and as for Bill, he said it was all ‘tommy-rot.’
Hender was an excellent workwoman, although a lazy girl, and, seeing from Kate’s manner that the time had not come for conversation, applied herself diligently to her business. Placing the two side-seams and the back under the needle, she gave the wheel a turn, and rapidly the little steel needle darted up and down into the glistening silk, as Miss Hender’s thick hands pushed it forward. The work was too delicate to admit of any distraction, so for some time nothing was heard but the clinking rattle of the machine and the ‘swishing’ of the silk as Kate drew it across the table and snipped it with the scissors which hung from her waist.
But at the end of about half an hour the work came to a pause. Hender had finished sewing up the bodice, had tacked on the facings, and Kate had cut out the skirt and basted it together. The time had come for exchanging a few words, and lifting her head from her work, she asked her assistant if she could remain that evening and do a little overtime. Hender said she was very sorry, but it was the first night of the new opera company; she had passes for the pit, and had promised to take a friend with her. She would, therefore, have to hurry away a little before six, so as to have her tea and be dressed in time.
‘Well, I don’t know what I shall do,’ said Kate sorrowfully. ‘As for myself, I simply couldn’t pass another night out of bed. You know I was uplooking after my husband all night. Attending a sick man, and one as cross as Mr. Ede, is not very nice, I can assure you.’
Hender congratulated herself inwardly that Bill was never likely to want much attendance.
‘I think you’d better tell Mrs. Barnes that she can’t expect the dress; it will be impossible to get it done in the time. I’d be delighted to help you, but I couldn’t disappoint my little friend. Besides, you’ve Mr. Lennox coming here to-day … you can’t get the dress done by to-morrow night!’
Hender had been waiting for a long time for an opportunity to lead up to Mr. Lennox.
‘Oh, dear me!’ said Kate, ‘I’d forgotten him, and he’ll be coming this afternoon, and may want some dinner, and I’ll have to help mother.’
‘They always have dinner in the afternoon,’ said Miss Hender, with a feeling of pride at being able to speak authoritatively on the ways and habits of actors.
‘Do they?’ replied Kate reflectively; and then, suddenly remembering her promise to the little girls, she said:
‘But do you know what part he takes in the play?’
Hender always looked pleased when questioned about the theatre, but all the stage carpenter had been able to tell her about the company was that it was one of the best travelling; that Frank Bret, the tenor, was supposed to have a wonderful voice; that the amount of presents he received in each town from ladies in the upper ranks of society would furnish a small shop–‘It’s said that they’d sell the chemises off their backs for him.’ The stage carpenter had also informed her that Joe Mortimer’s performance in the Cloches was extraordinary; he never failed to bring down the house in his big scene; and Lucy Leslie was the best Clairette going.
And now that they were going to have an actor lodging in their house, Kate felt a certain interest in hearing what such people were like; and while Miss Hender gossiped about all she had heard, Kate remembered that her question relating to Mr. Lennox remained unanswered.
‘But you’ve not told me what part Mr. Lennox plays. Perhaps he’s the man in white who is being dragged away from his bride? I’ve been examining the big picture; the little girls were so curious to know what it meant.’
‘Yes, he may play that part; it is called Pom-Pom Pouet–I can’t pronounce it right; it’s French. But in any case you’ll find him fine. All theatre people are. The other day I went behind to talk to Bill, and Mr. Rickett stopped to speak to me as he was running to make a change.’
‘What’s that?’ asked Kate.
‘Making a change? Dressing in a hurry.’
‘I hope you won’t get into trouble; stopping out so late is very dangerous for a young girl. And I suppose you walk up Piccadilly with him after the play?’
‘Sometimes he takes me out for a drink,’ Hender replied, anxious to avoid a discussion on the subject, but at the same time tempted to make a little boast of her independence. ‘But you must come to see _Madame Angot_; I hear it is going to be beautifully put on, and Mr. Lennox is sure to give you a ticket.’
‘I dare say I should like it very much; I don’t have much amusement.’
‘Indeed you don’t, and what do you get for it? I don’t see that Mr. Ede is so kind to you for all the minding and nursing you do; and old Mrs. Ede may repeat all day long that she’s a Christian woman, and what else she likes, but it doesn’t make her anything less disagreeable. I wouldn’t live in a house with a mother-in-law–and such a mother-in-law!’
‘You and Mrs. Ede never hit it off, but I don’t know what I should do without her; she’s the only friend I’ve got.’
‘Half your time you’re shut up in a sick-room, and even when he is well he’s always blowing and wheezing; not the man that would suit me.’
‘Ralph can’t help being cross sometimes,’ said Kate, and she fell to thinking of the fatigue of last night’s watching. She felt it still in her bones, and her eyes ached. As she considered the hardships of her life, her manner grew more abandoned.
‘If you’ll let me have the skirt, ma’am, I’ll stitch it up.’
Kate handed her the silk wearily, and was about to speak when Mrs. Ede entered.
‘Mr. Lennox is downstairs,’ she said stiffly. ‘I don’t know what you’ll think of him. I’m a Christian woman and I don’t want to misjudge anyone, but he looks to me like a person of very loose ways.’
Kate flushed a little with surprise, and after a moment she said:
‘I suppose I’d better go down and see him. But perhaps he won’t like the rooms after all. What shall I say to him?’
‘Indeed, I can’t tell you; I’ve the dinner to attend to.’
‘But,’ said Kate, getting frightened, ‘you promised me not to say any more on this matter.’
‘Oh, I say nothing. I’m not mistress here. I told you that I would not interfere with Mr. Lennox; no more will I. Why should I? What right have I? But I may warn you, and I have warned you. I’ve said my say, and I’ll abide by it.’
These hard words only tended to confuse Kate; all her old doubts returned to her, and she remained irresolute. Hender, with an expression of contempt on her coarse face, watched a moment and then returned to her sewing. As she did so Kate moved towards the door. She waited on the threshold, but seeing that her mother-in-law had turned her back, her courage returned to her and she went downstairs. When she caught sight of Mr. Lennox she shrank back frightened, for he was a man of about thirty years of age, with bronzed face, and a shock of frizzly hair, and had it not been for his clear blue eyes he might have passed for an Italian.
Leaning his large back against the counter, he examined a tray of ornaments in black jet. Kate thought he was handsome. He wore a large soft hat, which was politely lifted from his head when she entered. The attention embarrassed her, and somewhat awkwardly she interrupted him to ask if he would like to see the rooms. The suddenness of the question seemed to surprise him, and he began talking of their common acquaintance, the agent in advance, and of the difficulty in getting lodgings in the town. As he spoke he stared at her, and he appeared interested in the shop.
It was a very tiny corner, and, like a Samson, Mr. Lennox looked as if he would only have to extend his arms to pull the whole place down upon his shoulders. From the front window round to the kitchen door ran a mahogany counter; behind it, there were lines of cardboard boxes built up to the ceiling; the lower rows were broken and dusty, and spread upon wires were coarse shirts and a couple of pairs of stays in pink and blue. The windows were filled with babies’ frocks, hoods, and many pairs of little woollen shoes.
After a few remarks from Mr. Lennox the conversation came to a pause, and Kate asked him again if he would like to see the rooms. He said he would be delighted, and she lifted the flap and let him pass into the house. On the right of the kitchen door there was a small passage, and at the end of it the staircase began; the first few steps turned spirally, but after that it ascended like a huge canister or burrow to the first landing.
They passed Mrs. Ede gazing scornfully from behind the door of the workroom, but Mr. Lennox did not seem to notice her, and continued to talk affably of the difficulty of finding lodgings in the town.
Even the shabby gentility of the room, which his presence made her realize more vividly than ever, did not appear to strike him. He examined with interest the patchwork cloth that covered the round table, looked complacently at the little green sofa with the two chairs to match, and said that he thought he would be comfortable. But when Kate noticed how dusty was the pale yellow wall-paper, with its watery roses, she could not help feeling ashamed, and she wondered how so fine a gentleman as he could be so easily satisfied. Then, plucking up courage, she showed him the little mahogany chiffonier which stood next the door, and told him that it was there she would keep whatever he might order in the way of drinks. Mr. Lennox walked nearer to the small looking-glass engarlanded with green paper cut into fringes, twirled a slight moustache many shades lighter than his hair, and admired his white teeth.
The inspection of the drawing-room being over, they went up the second portion of the canister-like staircase, and after a turn and a stoop arrived at the bedroom.
‘I’m sorry you should see the room like this,’ Kate said. ‘I thought that my mother-in-law had got the room ready for you. I was obliged to sleep here last night; my husband–‘
‘I assure you I take no objection to the fact of your having slept here,’ he replied gallantly.
Kate blushed, and an awkward silence followed.
As Mr. Lennox looked round an expression of dissatisfaction passed over his face. It was a much poorer place than the drawing-room. Religion and poverty went there hand-in-hand. A rickety iron bedstead covered with another patchwork quilt occupied the centre of the room, and there was a small chest of drawers in white wood placed near the fireplace–the smallest and narrowest in the world. Upon the black painted chimney-piece a large red apple made a spot of colour. The carpet was in rags, and the lace blinds were torn, and hung like fishnets. Mr. Lennox apparently was not satisfied, but when his eyes fell upon Kate it was clear that he thought that so pretty a woman might prove a compensation. But the pious exhortations hanging on the walls seemed to cause him a certain uneasiness. Above the washstand there were two cards bearing the inscriptions, ‘Thou art my hope,’ ‘Thou art my will’; and these declarations of faith were written within painted garland of lilies and roses.
‘I see that you’re religious.’
‘I’m afraid not so much as I should be, sir.’
‘Well, I don’t know so much about that; the place is covered with Bible texts.’
‘Those were put there by my mother-in-law. She is very good.’
‘Oh ah,’ said Mr. Lennox, apparently much relieved by the explanation. ‘Old people are very pious, generally, aren’t they? But this patchwork quilt is yours, I suppose?’
‘Yes, sir; I made it myself,’ said Kate, blushing.
He made several attempts at conversation, but she did not respond, her whole mind being held up by the thought: ‘Is he going to take the rooms, I wonder?’ At last he said:
‘I like these apartments very well; and you say that I can have breakfast here?’
‘Oh, you can have anything you order, sir. I, or my mother, will–‘
‘Very well, then; we may consider the matter settled. I’ll tell them to send down my things from the theatre.’
This seemed to conclude the affair, and they went downstairs. But Mr. Lennox stopped on the next landing, and without any apparent object re-examined the drawing-room. Speaking like a man who wanted to start a conversation, he manifested interest in everything, and asked questions concerning the rattle of the sewing-machine, which could be heard distinctly; and before she could stop him he opened the door of the workroom. He wondered at all the brown-paper patterns that were hung on the walls, and Miss Hender, too eager to inform him, took advantage of the occasion to glide in a word to the effect that she was going to see him that evening at the theatre. Kate was amused, but felt it was her duty to take the first opportunity of interrupting the conversation. For some unexplained reason Mr. Lennox seemed loath to go, and it was with difficulty he was got downstairs. Even then he could not pass the kitchen door without stopping to speak to the apprentices. He asked them where they had found their brown hair and eyes, and attempted to exchange a remark with Mrs. Ede. Kate thought the encounter unfortunate, but it passed off better than she expected. Mrs. Ede replied that the little girls were getting on very well, and, apparently satisfied with this answer, Mr. Lennox turned to go. His manner indicated his Bohemian habits, for after all this waste of time he suddenly remembered that he had an appointment, and would probably miss it by about a quarter of an hour.
‘Will you require any dinner?’ asked Kate, following him to the door.
At the mention of the word ‘dinner’ he again appeared to forget all about his appointment. His face changed its expression, and his manner again grew confidential. He asked all kind of questions as to what she could get him to eat, but without ever quite deciding whether he would be able to find time to eat it. Kate thought she had never seen such a man. At last in a fit of desperation, he said:
‘I’ll have a bit of cold steak. I haven’t the time to dine, but if you’ll put that out for me … I like a bit of supper after the theatre–‘
Kate wished to ask him what he would like to drink with it, but it was impossible to get an answer. He couldn’t stop another minute, and, dodging the passers-by, he rushed rapidly down the street. She watched until the big shoulders were lost in the crowd, and asked herself if she liked the man who had just left her; but the answer slipped from her when she tried to define it, and with a sigh she turned into the shop and mechanically set straight those shirts that hung aslant on the traversing wires. At that moment Mrs. Ede came from the kitchen carrying a basin of soup for her sick son. She wanted to know why Kate had stayed so long talking to that man.
‘Talking to him!’ Kate repeated, surprised at the words and suspicious of an implication of vanity. ‘If we’re going to take his money it’s only right that we should try to make him comfortable.’
‘I doubt if his ten shillings a week will bring us much good,’ Mrs. Ede answered sourly; and she went upstairs, backbone and principles equally rigid, leaving Kate to fume at what she termed her mother-in-law’s unreasonableness.
But Kate had no time to indulge in many angry thoughts, for the tall gaunt woman returned with tears in her eyes to beg pardon.
‘I’m so sorry, dear. Did I speak crossly? I’ll say no more about the actor, I’ll promise.’
‘I don’t see why I should be bullied in my own house,’ Kate answered, feeling that she must assert herself. ‘Why shouldn’t I let my rooms to Mr. Lennox if I like?’
‘You’re right,’ Mrs. Ede replied–‘I’ve said too much; but don’t turn against me, Kate.’
‘No, no, mother; I don’t turn against you. You’re the only person I have to love.’
At these words a look of pleasure passed over the hard, blunt features of the peasant woman, and she said with tears in her voice:
‘You know I’m a bit hard with my tongue, but that’s all; I don’t mean it.’
‘Well, say no more, mother,’ and Kate went upstairs to her workroom, Miss Hender, already returned from dinner, was trembling with excitement, and she waited impatiently for the door to be shut that she might talk. She had been round to see her friend the stage carpenter, and he had told her all about the actor. Mr. Lennox was the boss; Mr. Hayes, the acting manager, was a nobody, generally pretty well boozed; and Mr. Cox, the London gent, didn’t travel.
Kate listened, only half understanding what was said.
‘And what part does he play in _Madame Angot_?’ she asked as she bent her head to examine the bead trimmings she was stitching on to the sleeves.
‘The low comedy part,’ said Miss Hender; but seeing that Kate did not understand, she hastened to explain that the low comedy parts meant the funny parts.
‘He’s the man who’s lost his wig–La-La Ravodee, I think they call it–and a very nice man he is. When I was talking to Bill I could see Mr. Lennox between the wings; he had his arm round Miss Leslie’s shoulder. I’m sure he’s sweet on her.’
Kate looked up from her work and stared at Miss Hender slowly. The announcement that Mr. Lennox was the funny man was disappointing, but to hear that he was a woman’s lover turned her against him.
‘All those actors are alike. I see now that my mother-in-law was right. I shouldn’t have let him my rooms.’
‘One’s always afraid of saying anything to you, ma’am; you twist one’s words so. I’m sure I didn’t mean to say there was any harm between him and Miss Leslie. There, perhaps you’ll go and tell him that I spoke about him.’
‘I’m sure I shall do nothing of the sort. Mr. Lennox has taken my rooms for a week, and there’s an end of it. I’m not going to interfere in his private affairs.’
The conversation then came to a pause, and all that was heard for a long time was the clicking of the needle and the rustling of silk. Kate wondered how it was that Mr. Lennox was so different off the stage from what he was when on; and it seemed to her strange that such a nice gentleman–for she was obliged to admit that he was that–should choose to play the funny parts. As for his connection with Miss Leslie, that of course was none of her business. What did it matter to her? He was in love with whom he pleased. She’d have thought he was a man who would not easily fall in love; but perhaps Miss Leslie was very pretty, and, for the matter of that, they might be going to be married. Meanwhile Miss Hender regretted having told Kate anything about Mr. Lennox. The best and surest way was to let people find out things for themselves, and having an instinctive repugnance to virtue–at least, to questions of conscience–she could not abide whining about spilt milk. Beyond an occasional reference to their work, the women did not speak again, until at three o’clock Mrs. Ede announced that dinner was ready. There was not much to eat, however, and Kate had little appetite, and she was glad when the meal was finished. She had then to help Mrs. Ede in getting the rooms ready, and when this was done it was time for tea. But not even this meal did they get in comfort, for Mr. Lennox had ordered a beefsteak for supper; somebody would have to go to fetch it. Mrs. Ede said she would, and Kate went into the shop to attend to the few customers who might call in the course of the evening. The last remarkable event in this day of events was the departure of Miss Hender, who came downstairs saying she had only just allowed herself time to hurry to the theatre; she feared she wouldn’t be there before the curtain went up, and she was sorry Kate wasn’t coming, but she would tell her to-morrow all about Mr. Lennox, and how the piece went. As Kate bade her assistant good-night a few customers dropped in, all of whom gave a great deal of trouble. She had to pull down a number of packages to find what was wanted. Then her next-door neighbour, the stationer’s wife, called to ask after Mr. Ede and to buy a reel of cotton; and so, in evening chat, the time passed, until the fruiterer’s boy came to ask if he should put up the shutters.
Kate nodded, and remarked to her friend, who had risen to go, what a nice, kind man Mr. Jones was.
‘Yes, indeed, they are very kind people, but their prices are very high. Do you deal with them?’
Kate replied that she did; and, as the fruiterer’s boy put up the shutters with a series of bangs, she tried to persuade her neighbour to buy a certain gown she had been long talking of.
‘Trimming and everything, it won’t cost you more than thirty shillings; you’ll want something fresh now that summer’s coming on.’
‘So I shall. I’ll speak to my man about it to-night. I think he’ll let me have it.’
‘He won’t refuse you if you press him.’
‘Well, we shall see,’ and bidding Kate good-night she passed into the street.
The evening was fine, and Kate stood for a long while watching the people surging out of the potteries towards Piccadilly. ‘Coming out,’ she said, ‘for their evening walk,’ and she was glad that the evening was fine. ‘After a long day in the potteries they want some fresh air,’ and then, raising her eyes from the streets, she watched the sunset die out of the west; purple and yellow streaks still outlined the grey expanse of the hills, making the brick town look like a little toy. An ugly little brick town–brick of all colours: the pale reddish-brown of decaying brick-yards, the fierce red brick of the newly built warehouses that turns to purple, and above the walls scarlet tiled roofs pointing sharp angles to a few stars.
Kate stood watching the fading of the hills into night clouds, interested in her thoughts vaguely–her thoughts adrift and faded somewhat as the spectacle before her. She wondered if her lodger would be satisfied with her mother’s cooking; she hoped so. He was a well-spoken man, but she could not hope to change mother. As the image of the lodger floated out of her mind Hender’s came into it, and she hoped the girl would not get into trouble. So many poor girls are in trouble; how many in the crowd passing before her door? The difficulty she was in with Mrs. Barnes’s dress suggested itself, and with a shiver and a sigh she shut the street-door and went upstairs. The day had passed; it was gone like a hundred days before it–wearily, perhaps, yet leaving in the mind an impression of something done, of duties honestly accomplished.
‘Oh, ma’am!’ Hender broke in, ‘you can’t think how amusing it was last night! I never enjoyed myself so much in my life. The place was crammed! Such a house! And Miss Leslie got three encores and a call after each act.’
‘And what was Mr. Lennox like?’
‘Oh, he only played a small part–one of the policemen. He don’t play Pom-poucet; I was wrong. It’s too heavy a part, and he’s too busy looking after the piece. But Joe Mortimer was splendid; I nearly died of laughing when he fell down and lost his wig in the middle of the stage. And Frank Bret looked such a swell, and he got an encore for the song, “Oh, Certainly I Love Clairette.” And he and Miss Leslie got another for the duet. To-morrow they play the _Cloches_.’
‘But now you’ve seen so much of the theatre I hope you’ll be able to do a little overtime with me. I’ve promised to let Mrs. Barnes have her dress by to-morrow morning.’
‘I’m afraid I shan’t be able to stay after six o’clock.’
‘But surely if they’re doing the same play you don’t want to see it again?’
‘Well ’tisn’t exactly that, but–well, I prefer to tell you the truth; ’tisn’t the piece I go to the theatre for; I’m one of the dressers, and I get twelve shillings a week, and I can’t afford to lose it. But there’s no use in telling Mrs. Ede, she’d only make a bother.’
‘How do you mean, dressing?’
‘The ladies of the theatre must have someone to dress them, and I look after the principals, Miss Leslie and Miss Beaumont, that’s all.’
‘And how long have you been doing that?’
‘Why, about a month now. Bill got me the place.’
This conversation had broken in upon a silence of nearly half an hour; with bent heads and clicking needles, Kate and Hender had been working assiduously at Mrs. Barnes’s skirt.
Having a great deal of _passementerie_ ornamentation to sew on to the heading of the flounces, and much fringe to arrange round the edge of the drapery, Kate looked forward to a heavy day. She had expected Miss Hender an hour earlier, and she had not turned up until after nine. An assistant whose time was so occupied that she couldn’t give an extra hour when you were in a difficulty was of very little use; and it might be as well to look out for somebody more suitable. Besides, all this talk about theatres and actors was very wrong; there could be little doubt that the girl was losing her character, and to have her coming about the house would give it a bad name. Such were Kate’s reflections as she handled the rustling silk and folded it into large plaitings. Now and again she tried to come to a decision, but she was not sincere with herself. She knew she liked the girl, and Hender’s conversation amused her: to send her away meant to surrender herself completely to her mother-in-law’s stern kindness and her husband’s irritability.
Hender was the window through which Kate viewed the bustle and animation of life, and even now, annoyed as she was that she would not be able to get the dress done in time, she could not refrain from listening to the girl’s chatter. There was about Miss Hender that strange charm which material natures possess even when they offend. Being of the flesh, we must sympathize with it, and the amiability of Hender’s spirits made a great deal pass that would have otherwise appeared wicked. She could tell without appearing too rude, how Mr. Wentworth, the lessee, was gone on a certain lady in the new company, and would give her anything if she would chuck up her engagement and come and live with him. When Hender told these stories, Kate, fearing that Mrs. Ede might have overheard, looked anxiously at the door, and under the influence of the emotion, it interested her to warn her assistant of the perils of frequenting bad company. But as Kate lectured she could not help wondering how it was that her life passed by so wearily. Was she never going to do anything else but work? she often asked herself, and then reproached herself for the regret that had risen unwittingly up in her mind that life was not all pleasure. It certainly was not, “but perhaps it is better,” she said to herself, “that we have to get our living, for me at least”–her thoughts broke off sharply, and she passed out of the present into a long past time.
Kate had never known her father; her mother, an earnest believer in Wesley, was a hard-working woman who made a pound a week by painting on china. This was sufficient for their wants, and Mrs. Howell’s only fears were that she might lose her health and die before her time, leaving her daughter in want. To avoid this fate she worked early and late at the factory, and Kate was left in the charge of the landlady, a childless old woman who, sitting by the fire, used to tell stories of her deceptions and misfortunes in life, thereby intoxicating the little girl’s brain with sentiment. The mother’s influence was a sort of make-weight; Mrs. Howell was a deeply religious woman, and Kate was often moved to trace back a large part of herself to Bible-readings and extemporary prayers offered up by the bedside in the evening.
Her school-days were unimportant. She learnt to read and write and to do sums; that was all. Kate grew, softly and mystically as a dark damask rose, into a pretty woman without conversions or passions: for notwithstanding her early training, religion had never taken a very firm hold upon her, and despite the fact that she married into a family very similar to her own, although her mother-in-law was almost a counterpart of her real mother–a little harder and more resolute, but as God-fearing and as kind–Kate had caught no blast of religious fervour; religion taught her nothing, inspired her with nothing, could influence her in little. She was not strong nor great, nor was she conscious of any deep feeling that if she acted otherwise than she did she would be living an unworthy life. She was merely good because she was a kind-hearted woman, without bad impulses, and admirably suited to the life she was leading.
But in this commonplace inactivity of mind there was one strong characteristic, one bit of colour in all these grey tints: Kate was dreamy, not to say imaginative. When she was a mere child she loved fairies, and took a vivid interest in goblins; and when afterwards she discarded these stories for others, it was not because it shocked her logical sense to read of a beanstalk a hundred feet high, but for a tenderer reason: Jack did not find a beautiful lady to love him. She could not help feeling disappointed, and when the _London Journal_ came for the first time across her way, with the story of a broken heart, her own heart melted with sympathy; the more sentimental and unnatural the romance, the more it fevered and enraptured her. She loved to read of singular subterranean combats, of high castles, prisoners, hair-breadth escapes; and her sympathies were always with the fugitives. It was also very delightful to hear of lovers who were true to each other in spite of a dozen wicked uncles, of women who were tempted until their hearts died within them, and who years after threw up their hands and said, “Thank God that I had the courage to resist!”
The second period of her sentimental education was when she passed from the authors who deal exclusively with knights, princesses, and kings to those who interest themselves in the love fortunes of doctors and curates.
Amid these there was one story that interested her in particular, and caused her deeper emotions than the others. It concerned a beautiful young woman with a lovely oval face, who was married to a very tiresome country doctor. This lady was in the habit of reading Byron and Shelley in a rich, sweet-scented meadow, down by the river, which flowed dreamily through smiling pasture-lands adorned by spreading trees. But this meadow belonged to a squire, a young man with grand, broad shoulders, who day after day used to watch these readings by the river without venturing to address a word to the fair trespasser. One day, however, he was startled by a shriek: in her poetical dreamings the lady had slipped into the water. A moment sufficed to tear off his coat, and as he swam like a water-dog he had no difficulty in rescuing her. Of course after this adventure he had to call and inquire, and from henceforth his visits grew more and more frequent, and by a strange coincidence, he used to come riding up to the hall-door when the husband was away curing the ills of the country-folk. Hours were passed under the trees by the river, he pleading his cause, and she refusing to leave poor Arthur, till at last the squire gave up the pursuit and went to foreign parts, where he waited thirty years, until he heard Arthur was dead. And then he came back with a light heart to his first and only love, who had never ceased to think of him, and lived with her happily for ever afterwards. The grotesque mixture of prose and poetry, both equally false, used to enchant Kate, and she always fancied that had she been the heroine of the book she would have acted in the same way.
Kate’s taste for novel-reading distressed Mrs. Howell; she thought it ‘a sinful waste of time, not to speak of the way it turned people’s heads from God’; and when one day she found Kate’s scrap-book, made up of poems cut from the _Family Herald_, she began to despair of her daughter’s salvation. The answer Kate made to her mother’s reproaches was: ‘Mother, I’ve been sewing all day; I can’t see what harm it can be to read a little before I go to bed. Nobody is required to be always saying their prayers.’
The next two years passed away unperceived by either mother or daughter, and then an event occurred of some importance. Their neighbours at the corner of the street got into difficulties, and were eventually sold out and their places taken by strangers, who changed the oil-shop into a drapery business. The new arrivals aroused the keenest interest, and Mrs. Howell and her daughter called to see what they were like, as did everybody else. The acquaintance thus formed was renewed at church, and much to their surprise and pleasure, they discovered that they were of the same religious persuasion.
Henceforth the Howells and Edes saw a great deal of each other, and every Sunday after church the mothers walked home together and the young people followed behind. Ralph spoke of his ill-health, and Kate pitied him, and when he complimented her on her beautiful hair she blushed with pleasure. For much as she had revelled in fictitious sentiment, she had somehow never thought of seeking it in nature, and how that she had found a lover, the critical sense was not strong enough in her to lead her to compare reality with imagination. She accepted Ralph as unsuspectingly as she hitherto accepted the tawdry poetry of her favourite fiction. And her nature not being a passionate one, she was able to do this without any apparent transition of sentiment. She pitied him, hoped she could be of use in nursing him, and felt flattered at the idea of being mistress of a shop.
The mothers were delighted, and spoke of the coincidence of their religions and the admirable addition dressmaking would be to the drapery business. Of love, small mention was made. The bridegroom spoke of his prospects of improving the business, the bride listened, interested for the while in his enthusiasm; orders came in, and Kate was soon transformed into a hard-working woman.
This change of character passed unperceived by all but Mrs. Howell, who died wondering how it came about. Kate herself did not know; she fancied that it was fully accounted for by the fact that she had no time–‘ no time for reading now’–which was no more than the truth; but she did not complain; she accepted her husband’s kisses as she did the toil he imposed on her–meekly, unaffectedly, as a matter of course, as if she always knew that the romances which used to fascinate her were merely idle dreams, having no bearing upon the daily life of human beings–things fit to amuse a young girl’s fancies, and to be thrown aside when the realities of life were entered upon. The only analogy between the past and present was an ample submission to authority and an indifference to the world and its interest. Even the fact of being without children did not seem to concern her, and when her mother-in-law regretted it she merely smiled languidly, or said, ‘We are very well as we are.’ Of the world and the flesh she lived almost in ignorance, suspecting their existence only through Miss Hender. Hender was attracted by her employer’s kindness and softness of manner, and Kate by her assistant’s strength of will. For some months past a friendship had been growing up between the two women, but if Kate had known for certain that Hender was living a life of sin with the stage carpenter she might not have allowed her into the house. But the possibility of sin attached her to the girl in the sense that it forced her to think of her continually. And then there was a certain air of bravado in Miss Hender’s freckled face that Kate admired. She instituted comparisons between herself and the assistant, and she came to the conclusion that she preferred that fair, blonde complexion to her own clear olive skin; and the sparkle of the red frizzy hair put her out of humour with the thick, wavy blue tresses which encircled her small temples like a piece of black velvet.
As she continued her sewing she reconsidered the question of Hender’s dismissal, but only to perceive more and more clearly the blank it would occasion in her life. And besides her personal feeling there was the fact to consider that to satisfy her customers she must have an assistant who could be depended upon. And she did not know where she would find another who would turn out work equal to Hender’s. At last Kate said:
‘I don’t know what I shall do; I promised the dress by to-morrow morning.’
‘I think we’ll be able to finish it to-day,’ Hender answered. ‘I’ll work hard at it all the afternoon; a lot can be done between this and seven o’clock.’
‘Oh, I don’t know,’ replied Kate dolefully; ‘these leaves take such a time to sew on; and then there’s all the festooning.’
‘I think it can be managed, but we must stick at it.’
On this expression of good-will the conversation ceased for the time being, and the clicking of needles and the buzzing of flies about the brown-paper patterns were all that was heard until twelve o’clock, when Mrs. Ede burst into the room.
‘I knew what it would be,’ she said, shutting the door after her.
‘What is it?’ said Kate, looking up frightened.
‘Well, I offered to do him a chop or some fried eggs, but he says he must have an omelette. Did you ever hear of such a thing? I told him I didn’t know how to make one, but he said that I was to ask you if you could spare the time.’
‘I’ll make him an omelette,’ said Kate, rising. ‘Have you got the eggs?’
‘Yes. The trouble that man gives us! What with his bath in the morning, and two pairs of boots to be cleaned, and the clothes that have to be brushed, I’ve done nothing but attend to him since ten o’clock; and what hours to keep!–it is now past eleven.’
‘What’s the use of grumbling? You know the work must be done, and I can’t be in two places at once. You promised me you wouldn’t say anything more about it, but would attend to him just the same as any other lodger.’
‘I can’t do more than I’m doing; I haven’t done anything all the morning but run upstairs,’ said Mrs. Ede very crossly; ‘and I wish you’d take the little girls out of the kitchen; I can’t look after them, and they do nothing but look out of the window.’
‘Very well, I’ll have them up here; they can sit on the sofa. We can manage with them now that we’ve finished the cutting out.
Hender made no reply to this speech, which was addressed to her. She hated having the little girls up in the workroom, and Kate knew it.
Kate did not take long to make Mr. Lennox’s omelette. There was a bright fire in the kitchen, the muffins were toasted, and the tea was made.
‘This is a very small breakfast,’ she said as she put the plates and dishes on the tray. ‘Didn’t he order anything else?’
‘He spoke about some fried bacon, but I’ll attend to that; you take the other things up to him.’
As Kate passed with the tray in her hand she reproved the little girls for their idleness and told them to come upstairs, but it was not until she motioned them into the workroom that she realized that she was going into Mr. Lennox’s room.
After a slight pause she turned the handle of the door and entered. Mr. Lennox was lying very negligently in the armchair, wrapped in his dressing-gown. ‘Oh, I beg your pardon, sir; I didn’t know–‘ she said, starting back. Then, blushing for shame at her own silliness in taking notice of such things, she laid the breakfast things on the table.
Mr. Lennox thanked her, and without seeming to notice her discomfiture he wrapped himself up more closely, drew his chair forward, and, smacking his lips, took the cover off the dish. ‘Oh, very nice indeed,’ he said, ‘but I’m afraid I’ve given you a great deal of trouble; the old lady said you were very, very busy.’
‘I’ve to finish a dress to-day, sir, and my assistant–‘
Here Kate stopped, remembering that if Mr. Lennox had renewed his acquaintance with Hender at the theatre, any allusion to her would give rise to further conversation. ‘Oh yes, I know Miss Hender; she’s one of our dressers; she looks after our two leading ladies, Miss Leslie and Miss Beaumont. But I don’t see the bacon here.’
‘Mrs. Ede is cooking it; she’ll bring it up in a minute or two,’ Kate answered, edging towards the door.
‘We’ve nothing to do with the dressers,’ said Mr. Lennox, speaking rapidly, so as to detain his landlady; ‘but if you’re as pressed with your work as you tell me, I dare say, by speaking to the lessee, I might manage to get Miss Hender off for this one evening.’
‘Thank you, sir; I’m sure it’s very kind of you, but I shall be able to manage without that.’
The lodger spoke with such an obvious desire to oblige that Kate could not choose but like him, and it made her wish all the more that he would cover up his big, bare neck.
”Pon my word, this is a capital omelette,’ he said, licking his lips, ‘There is nothing I like so much as a good omelette, I was very lucky to come here,’ he added, glancing at Kate’s waist, which was slim even in her old blue striped dress.
‘It’s very kind of you to say so, sir,’ she said, and a glow of rose-colour flushed the dark complexion. There was something very human in this big man, and Kate did not know whether his animalism irritated or pleased her.
‘You weren’t at the theatre last night?’ he said, forcing a huge piece of deeply buttered, spongy French roll into his mouth.
‘No, sir, I wasn’t there; I rarely go to the theatre.’
‘Ah! I’m sorry. How’s that? We had a tremendous house. I never saw the piece go better. If this business keeps up to the end of the week I think we shall try to get another date.’
Kate did not know what ‘another date’ meant, but Hender would be able to tell her.
‘You’ve only to tell me when you want to see the piece, and I’ll give you places. Would you like to come to-night?’
‘Not to-night, thank you, sir. I shall be busy all the evening, and my husband is not very well.’
The conversation then came to an irritating pause. Mr. Lennox had scraped up the last fragments of the omelette, and poured himself out another cup of tea, when Mrs. Ede appeared with the broiled bacon. On seeing Kate talking to Mr. Lennox, she at once assumed an air of mingled surprise and regret.
Kate noticed this, but Mr. Lennox had no eyes for anything but the bacon, which he heaped on his plate and devoured voraciously. It pleased Kate to see him enjoy his breakfast, but while she was admiring him Mrs. Ede said as she moved towards the door, ‘Can I do anything for you, sir?’
‘Well, no,’ replied Mr. Lennox indifferently; but seeing that Kate was going too he swallowed a mouthful of tea hastily and said, ‘I was just telling the lady here that we had a tremendous success last night, and that she ought to come and see the piece. I think she said she had no one to go with. You should take her. I’m sure you will like the _Cloches_.’
Mrs. Ede looked indignant, but after a moment she recovered herself, and said severely and emphatically: ‘Thank you, sir, but I’m a Christian woman. No offence, sir, but I don’t think such things are right.’
‘Ah! don’t you, indeed?’ replied the mummer, looking at her in blank astonishment. But the expression of his face soon changed, and as if struck suddenly by some painful remembrance, he said, ‘You’re a Dissenter or something of that kind, I suppose. We lost a lot of money at Bradford through people of your persuasion; they jolly well preached against us.’
Mrs. Ede did not answer, and after a few brief apologetic phrases to the effect that it would not do for us all to think alike, Kate withdrew to her work-room, asking herself if Mr. Lennox would take offence and leave them. Hender suspected that something had occurred, and was curious to hear what it was; but there sat those idiotic little girls, and of course it wouldn’t do to speak before them. Once she hinted that she had heard that Mr. Lennox, though a very nice man, was a bit quick-tempered, a query that Kate answered evasively, saying that it was difficult to know what Mr. Lennox was like. Words were an effort to her, and she could not detach a single precise thought from the leaden-coloured dreams which hung about her.
Click, click, went the needles all day long, and Kate wondered what a woman who lived in a thirty-pound house could want with a ten-pound dress. But that was no affair of hers, and as it was most important she should not disappoint her, Kate kept Hender to dinner; and as compensation for the press of work, she sent round to the public for three extra half-pints. They needed a drink, for the warmth of the day was intense. Along the red tiles of the houses, amid the brick courtyards, the sun’s rays created an oven-like atmosphere. From the high wall opposite the dead glare poured into the little front kitchen through the muslin blinds, burning the pot of green-stuff, and falling in large spots upon the tiled floor; and overcome by the heat, the two women lay back on the little red calico-covered sofa, languidly sipping their beer, and thinking vaguely of when they would have to begin work again. Hender lolled with her legs stretched out; Kate rested her head upon her hand wearily; Mrs. Ede sat straight, apparently unheeding the sunlight which fell across the plaid shawl that she wore winter and summer. She drank her beer in quick gulps, as if even the time for swallowing was rigidly portioned out. The others watched her, knowing that when her pewter was empty she would turn them out of the kitchen. In a few moments she said, ‘I think, Kate, that if you’re in a hurry you’d better get on with your dress. I have to see to Mr. Lennox’s dinner, and I can’t have you a-hanging about. As it is, I don’t know how I’m to get the work done. There’s a leg of mutton to be roasted, and a pudding to be made, and all by four o’clock.’
Kate calmed the old woman with a few words, and taking Ralph’s dinner from her, carried it upstairs. She found her husband better, and, setting the tray on the edge of the bed, she answered the questions he put to her concerning the actor briefly; then begged of him to excuse her, as she heard voices in the shop. Mr. Lennox had come in bringing two men with him, Joe Mortimer, the low comedian, and young Montgomery, the conductor; and it became difficult to prevent Hender from listening at the doors, and almost useless to remind her of the fact that there were children present, so excited did she become when she spoke of Bret’s love affairs.
But at six o’clock she put on her hat, and there was no dissuading her; Mrs. Barnes must wait for her dress. There was still much to be done, and when Mrs. Ede called from the kitchen that tea was ready, Kate did not at first answer, and when at last she descended she remained only long enough to eat a piece of bread and butter. Her head was filled with grave forebodings, that gradually drifted and concentrated into one fixed idea–not to disappoint Mrs. Barnes. Once quite suddenly, she was startled by an idea which flashed across her mind, and stopping in the middle of a ‘leaf,’ she considered the question that had propounded itself. Lodgers often make love to their landladies; what would she do if Mr. Lennox made love to her? Such a thing might occur. An expression of annoyance contracted her face, and she resumed her sewing. The hours passed slowly and oppressively. It was now ten o’clock, and the tail had still to be bound with braid, and the side strings to be sewn in. She had no tape by her, and thought of putting off these finishing touches till the morning, but plucking up her courage, she determined to go down and fetch from the shop what was required. The walk did her good, but it was hard to sit down to work again; and the next few minutes seemed to her interminable: but at last the final stitch was given, the thread bitten off, and the dress held up in triumph. She looked at it for a moment with a feeling of pride, which soon faded into a sensation of indifference.
All the same her day’s labour was over; she was now free. But the thought carried a bitterness: she remembered that there was no place for her to go to but her sick husband’s room. Yet she had been looking forward to having at least one night’s rest, and it exasperated her to think that there was nothing for her but a hard pallet in the back room, and the certainty of being awakened several times to attend to Ralph. She asked herself passionately if she was always going to remain a slave and a drudge? Hender’s words came back to her with a strange distinctness, and she saw that she knew nothing of pleasure, or even of happiness; and in a very simple way she wondered what were really the ends of life. If she were good and religious like her mother or her mother-in-law–But somehow she could never feel as they did. Heaven seemed so far away. Of course it was a consolation to think there was a happier and better world; still–still–Not being able to pursue the thread any further, she stopped, puzzled, and a few moments after she was thinking of the lady who used to read Byron and Shelley, and who resisted her lover’s entreaties so bravely. Every part of the forgotten story came back to her. She realized the place they used to dream in. She could see them watching with ardent eyes the paling of the distant sky as they listened to the humming of insects, breathing the honied odour of the flowers; she saw her leaning on his arm caressingly, whilst pensively she tore with the other hand the leaves as they passed up the long terrace.
Then as the vision became more personal and she identified herself with the heroine of the book, she thought of the wealth of love she had to give, and it seemed to her unutterably sad that it should bloom like a rose in a desert unknown and unappreciated.
This was the last flight of her dream. The frail wings of her imagination could sustain her no longer, and too weary to care for or even to think of anything, she went upstairs, to find Mrs. Ede painting her son’s chest and back with iodine. He had a bad attack, which was beginning to subside. His face was haggard, his eyes turgid, and the two women talked together. Mrs. Ede was indignant, and told of all her trouble with the dinner. She had to fetch cigars and drinks. Kate listened, watching her husband all the while. He began to get a little better, and Mrs. Ede took advantage of the occasion to suggest that it was time for evening prayers.
In days when speech was possible, it was Ralph who read the customary chapter of the Bible and led the way with the Lord’s Prayer; but when words were forbidden to him his mother supplied his place. The tall figure knelt upright. It was not a movement of cringing humility, but of stalwart belief, and as she handed her the Bible, Kate could not help thinking that there was pride in her mother-in-law’s very knees.
The old woman turned over the leaves for a few seconds in silence; then, having determined on a chapter, she began to read. But she had not got beyond a few sentences before she was interrupted by the sound of laughing voices and stamping feet.
She stopped reading, and looked from Kate to her husband. He was at the moment searching for his pocket-handkerchief. Kate rose to assist him, and Mrs. Ede said:
‘It’s shameful! it’s disgraceful!’
‘It’s only Mr. Lennox coming in.’
‘Only Mr. Lennox!’ At that moment she was interrupted by the lighter laughter of female voices; she paused to listen, and then, shutting the book fiercely, she said, ‘From the first I was against letting our rooms to a mummer; but I didn’t think I should live to see my son’s house turned into a night house. I shall not stop here.’
‘Not stop here-eh, eh? We must tell–tell him that it can’t be allowed,’ Ralph wheezed.
‘And I should like to know who these women are he has dared to bring into– People he has met in Piccadilly, I suppose!’
‘Oh no!’ interrupted Kate, ‘I’m sure that they are the ladies of the theatre.’
‘And where’s the difference?’ Mrs. Ede asked fiercely. Sectarian hatred of worldly amusement flamed in her eyes, and made common cause with the ordinary prejudice of the British landlady. Mr. Ede shared his mother’s opinions, but as he was then suffering from a splitting headache, his chief desire was that she should lower the tone of her voice.
‘For goodness’ sake don’t speak so loud!’ he said plaintively. ‘Of course he mustn’t bring women into the house; but he had better be told so. Kate, go down and tell him that these ladies must leave.’
Kate stood aghast at hearing her fate thus determined, and she asked herself how she was to tell Mr. Lennox that he must put his friends out of doors. She hesitated, and during a long silence all three listened. A great guffaw, a woman’s shriek, a peal of laughter, and then a clinking of glasses was heard. Even Kate’s face told that she thought it very improper, and Mrs. Ede said with a theatrical air of suppressed passion:
‘Very well; I suppose that is all that can be done at present.’
Feeling very helpless, Kate murmured, ‘I don’t see how I’m to tell them to go. Hadn’t we better put it off until morning.’
‘Till morning!’ said Mr. Ede, trying to button his dirty nightshirt across his hairy chest. ‘I’m not going to listen to that noise all night. Kate, you g-go and tur-r-rn them out.’
‘I’m sorry, dearie,’ said Mrs. Ede, seeing her daughter-in-law’s distress. ‘I’ll soon send them away.’
‘Oh no! I’d rather go myself,’ said Kate.
‘Very well, dear. I only thought you might not like to go down among a lot of rough people.’
The noise downstairs was in the meanwhile increasing, and Ralph grew as angry as his asthma would allow him. ‘They’re just killing me with their noise. Go down at once and tell them they must leave the house instantly. If you don’t I’ll go myself.’
Mrs. Ede made a movement towards the door, but Kate stopped her, saying:
‘I’ll go; it’s my place.’ As she descended the stairs she heard a man’s voice screaming above the general hubbub:
‘I’ll tell you what; if Miss Beaumont doesn’t wait for my beat another night, I’ll insist on a rehearsal being called. She took the concerted music in the finale of the first act two whole bars before her time. It was damned awful. I nearly broke my stick trying to stop her.’
‘Quite true; I never saw the piece go so badly. Bret was “fluffing” all over the shop.’
Kate listened to these fragments of conversation, asked herself how she was to walk in upon those people and tell them that they must keep quiet.
‘And the way Beaumont tries to spoon with Dick. She nearly missed her cue once with sneaking after him in the wings.’
A peal of laughter followed. This sally determined Kate to act; and without having made up her mind what to say, she turned the handle of the door and walked into the room.
The three gas-burners were blazing, wine-glasses were on the table, and Mr. Lennox stood twisting a corkscrew into a bottle which he held between his fat thighs. On the little green sofa Miss Lucy Leslie lay back playing with her bonnet-strings. Her legs were crossed, and a lifted skirt showed a bit of striped stocking. Next her, with his spare legs sprawled over the arm of the easy-chair, was Mr. Montgomery, the thinnest being possible to imagine, in grey clothes. His nose was enormous, and he pushed up his glasses when Kate came into the room with a movement of the left hand that was clearly habitual. On the other side of the round table sat Mr. Joe Mortimer, the heavy lead, the celebrated miser in the _Cloches_. A tall girl standing behind him playfully twisted his back hair. He addressed paternal admonitions to her from time to time in an artificially cracked voice.
‘Please, sir,’ said Kate pleadingly, ‘I’m very sorry, but we cannot keep open house after eleven o’clock.’
A deep silence followed this announcement. Miss Leslie looked up at Kate curiously. Mr. Lennox stopped twisting the corkscrew into the bottle, and the low comedian, seizing the opportunity, murmured in his mechanical voice to the girl behind him, ‘Open house! Of course, she’s quite right. I knew there was a draught somewhere; I felt my hair blowing about.’
Everybody laughed, and the merriment still contributed to discountenance the workwoman.
‘Will he never speak and let me go?’ she asked herself. At last he did speak, and his words fell upon her like blows.
‘I don’t know what you mean, Mrs. Ede,’ he said in a loud, commanding voice. ‘I made no agreement with you that I wasn’t to bring friends home with me in the evening. Had I known that I was taking lodgings in a church I wouldn’t have come.’
She felt dreadfully humiliated, and nothing was really present in her mind but a desire to conciliate Mr. Lennox.
‘It isn’t my fault, sir. I really don’t mind; but my mother-in-law and my husband won’t have people coming into the house after ten o’clock.’
Mr. Lennox’s face showed that his heart had softened towards her, and when she mentioned that her husband was lying ill in bed, turning round to his company, he said:
‘I think we are making too much noise; we shouldn’t like it ourselves if–‘
But just at that moment, when all was about to end pleasantly, Mrs. Ede was heard at the top of the stairs.
‘I’m a Christian woman, and will not remain in a house where drinking and women–‘
This speech changed everything. Mr. Lennox’s eyes flashed passion, and he made a movement as if he were going to shout an answer back to Mrs. Ede, but checking himself, he said, addressing Kate, ‘I beg that you leave my rooms, ma’am. You can give me warning in the morning if you like, or rather, I’ll give it to you; but for this evening, at least, the place is mine, and I shall do what I like.’ On that he advanced towards the door and threw it open.
Tears stood in her eyes. She looked sorrowfully at Mr. Lennox. He noticed the pitiful, appealing glance, but was too angry to understand. The look was her whole soul. She did not see Miss Leslie sneering, nor Mr. Montgomery’s grinning face. She saw nothing but Mr. Lennox, and, stunned by the thought of his leaving them, she followed her mother-in-law upstairs. The old woman scolded and rowed. To have that lot of men and women smoking and drinking after eleven o’clock in the house was not to be thought of, and she tried to force her son to say that the police must be sent for. But it was impossible to get an answer from him: the excitement and effort of speaking had rendered him speechless, and holding his moppy black hair with both hands, he wheezed in deep organ tones. Kate looked at him blankly, and longed for some place out of hearing of his breath and out of the smell of the medicine-bottles. His mother was now insisting on his taking a couple of pills, and called upon Kate to find the box. The sharp, sickly odour of the aloes was abominable, and with her stomach turning, she watched her husband trying vainly to swallow the dose with the aid of a glass of water. Stop in this room! No, that she couldn’t do! It would poison her. She wanted sleep and fresh air. Where could she get them? The mummer was in the spare room; but he would be gone to-morrow, and she would be left alone. The thought startled her, though she soon forgot it in her longing to get out of her husband’s sight. Every moment this desire grew stronger, and at last she said:
‘I cannot stay here; another night would kill me. Will you let me have your room?’
‘Certainly I will, my dear,’ replied the old woman, astonished not so much at the request, but at the vehemence of the emphasis laid upon the words. ‘You’re looking dreadfully worn out, my dear; I’ll see to my boy.’
As soon as her request had been granted, Kate hesitated as if she feared she was doing wrong, and she looked at her husband, wondering if he would call her back.
But he took no heed; his attention was too entirely occupied by his breath to think either of her or of the necessity of sending for the police, and he waved his mother away when she attempted to speak to him.
‘Are those men going to stop there all night?’ Mrs. Ede asked.
‘Oh, I really don’t know; I’m too tired to bother about it any more,’ replied Kate petulantly. ‘It’s all your fault–you’re to blame for everything; you’ve no right to interfere with the lodgers in my house.’
Mrs. Ede raised her arms as she sought for words, but Kate walked out of the room without giving her time to answer. Suddenly a voice cried in a high key:
‘Who do you take me for, Dick? I wasn’t born yesterday. A devilish pretty woman, if you ask me. What hair!–like velvet!’
Kate stopped. ‘Black hair,’ she said to herself–‘they must be talking of me,’ and she listened intently.
The remark, however, did not appear to have been particularly well-timed, for after a long silence, a woman’s voice said:
‘Well, I don’t know whether he liked her, and I don’t care, but what I’m not going to do is to wait here listening to you all cracking up a landlady’s good looks. I’m off.’
A scuffle then seemed to be taking place; half a dozen voices spoke together, and in terror of her life Kate flew across the workroom to Mrs. Ede’s bed.
The door of the sitting-room was flung open and cajoling and protesting words echoed along the passage up and down the staircase. It was disgraceful, and Kate expected every minute to hear her mother-in-law’s voice mingling in the fray; but peace was restored, and for at least an hour she listened to sounds of laughing voices mingling with the clinking of glasses. At last Dick wished his friends good-night, and Kate lay under the sheets and listened. Something was going to happen. ‘He thinks me a pretty woman; she is jealous,’ were phrases that rang without ceasing in her ears. Then, hearing his door open, she fancied he was coming to seek her, and in consternation buried herself under the bedclothes, leaving only her black hair over the pillows to show where she had disappeared. But the duplicate drop of a pair of boots was conclusive, and assuring herself that he would not venture on such a liberty, she strove to compose herself to sleep.
Next day, about eleven o’clock, Kate walked up Market Street with Mrs.