E-text prepared by Al Haines
A Humour Novel
FLORENCE A. KILPATRICK
Illustrated by Ernest Forbes
[Frontispiece: Elizabeth Renshaw.]
Thornton Butterworth Limited 62 St. Martin's Lane, London, W.C. 2 Published November 1920
Elizabeth is not a type; she is an individuality. Signs and omens at her birth no doubt determined her sense of the superstitious; but I trace her evolution as a figure of fun to some sketches of mine in the pages of Punch. These, however, were only impressions of Elizabeth on a small scale, but I acknowledge the use of them here in the process of developing her to full life-size. Elizabeth, as I say, is a personality apart; there is only one Elizabeth. Here she is.
F. A. K.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
CHAPTER 1 CHAPTER 11 CHAPTER 2 CHAPTER 12 CHAPTER 3 CHAPTER 13 CHAPTER 4 CHAPTER 14 CHAPTER 5 CHAPTER 15 CHAPTER 6 CHAPTER 16 CHAPTER 7 CHAPTER 17 CHAPTER 8 CHAPTER 18 CHAPTER 9 CHAPTER 19 CHAPTER 10 CHAPTER 20
Our Elizabeth . . . . . . Frontispiece
Henry and I looked at the Cookery Book
A Bad Sign
Marion dropped fifteen stitches
Our Friend William
'Wot's 'orrible about it?'
'Oh, must I, Mama?'
''E was starin' at it wild-like.'
'Do you mean the boiler one?' I asked.
'I suppose I'm shocking you terribly.'
A slight lowering of the left eye-lid.
Henry, being a Scotsman, likes argument.
'A fair razzle-dazzle.'
She dashed from the room in a spasm of mirth.
'Am I not a suitable wife for Henry?'
'Carn't you get rid of 'er?'
'Stop, William!' Marion said.
'Oo ses the Signs is wrong?'
''Ere's to us, all of us!'
If you ask Henry he will tell you that I cannot cook. In fact, he will tell you even if you don't ask. To hold up my culinary failures to ridicule is one of his newest forms of humour (new to Henry, I mean—the actual jokes you will have learned already at your grandmother's knee).
I had begun to see that I must either get a servant soon or a judicial separation from Henry. That was the stage at which I had arrived. Things were getting beyond me. By 'things' I mean the whole loathsome business of housework. My metier is to write—not that I am a great writer as yet, though I hope to be some day. What I never hope to be is a culinary expert. Should you command your cook to turn out a short story she could not suffer more in the agonies of composition than I do in making a simple Yorkshire pudding.
Henry does not like housework any more than I do; he says the performance of menial duties crushes his spirit—but he makes such a fuss about things. You might think, to hear him talk, that getting up coal, lighting fires, chopping wood and cleaning flues, knives and brasses were the entire work of a household instead of being mere incidents in the daily routine. If he had had to tackle my duties . . . but men never understand how much there is to do in a house.
Even when they do lend a hand my experience is that they invariably manage to hurt themselves in some way. Henry seems incapable of getting up coal without dropping the largest knob on his foot. If he chops wood he gashes himself; he cannot go through the simple rite of pouring boiling water out of a saucepan without getting scalded; and when he mounts the steps to adjust the blinds I always keep the brandy uncorked in readiness; you see, he declares that a chap needs something to pull himself together after a fall from a step-ladder.
Perhaps you trace in all this a certain bitterness, a veiled antagonism on my part towards Henry; you may even imagine that we are a bickering sort of couple, constantly trying to get the better of each other. If so, you are mistaken. Up to six months before this story opens our married life had been ideal—for which reason I didn't open the story earlier. Ideal marriages (to any one except the contracting parties) are uninteresting affairs. It is such a pity that the good, the laudable, things in life generally are.
One of the reasons why our union was ideal (up to six months before this story opens) was that we shared identical tastes. Comradeship is the true basis of—but perhaps you have read my articles on the subject on the Woman's Page of the Daily Trail. I always advise girls to marry men of their own temperament. As a matter of fact, I expect they marry the men who are easiest to land, but you're not allowed to say things like that (on the Woman's Page). We have pure and noble ideals, we are tender, motherly and housewifely (on the Woman's Page).
Henry and I were of the same temperament. For one thing, we were equally incompetent at golf. Perhaps I foozled my drive rather worse than Henry, but then he never took fewer than five strokes on the green, whereas I have occasionally done it in four. Then we mutually detested gramophones. But when we discovered that we could both play 'Caller Herrin'' on the piano with one finger (entirely by ear) we felt that we were affinities, and got married shortly afterwards.
Stevenson once said, 'Marriage is not a bed of roses; it is a field of battle.' At the epoch of which I write Henry and I had not got to turning machine-guns on each other. At the most we only had diplomatic unpleasantnesses. The position, however, was getting strained. I realized quite clearly that if we didn't obtain domestic help of some sort very soon it might come to open hostilities. Isn't it surprising how the petty annoyances of life can wear away the strong bulwarks of trust and friendship formed by years of understanding? Our particular bulwarks were becoming quite shaky through nothing else but having to muddle through the dull sordid grind of cooking and housework by ourselves. We were getting disillusioned with each other. No 'jaundiced eye that casts discolouration' could look more jaundiced than Henry's when I asked him to dry up the dinner things.
Having explained all this, you will now understand something of my feelings when, on going to answer a knock at the door, I was confronted by a solid female who said she had been sent from the Registry Office. Oh, thrice blessed Registry Office that had answered my call.
'Come in,' I said eagerly, and, leading the way into the dining-room, I seated myself before her. With lowered eyes and modest mien I was, of course, waiting for her to speak first. I did not wait long. Her voice, concise and direct, rapped out: 'So you require a cook-general?'
'Yes—er—please,' I murmured. Under her searching gaze my knees trembled, my pulses throbbed, a slight perspiration broke out on my forehead. My whole being seemed to centre itself in the mute inquiry: 'Shall I suit?'
There was a pause while the applicant placed her heavy guns. Then she opened fire immediately. 'I suppose you have outside daily help?'
'Er—no,' I confessed.
'Then you have a boy to do the windows, knives and boots?'
'Do you send everything to the laundry?'
'Well . . . no . . . not quite.' I wanted to explain, to modify, to speak airily of woollens being 'just rubbed through,' but she hurried me forward.
'Have you a hot water circulator?'
'A gas cooking-range?'
It was terrible. I seemed to have nothing. I stood, as it were, naked to the world, bereft of a single inducement to hold out to the girl.
'Do you dine late?'
At this point, when I longed to answer 'No,' I was compelled to say 'Yes.' That decided her. She rose at once and moved towards the door. 'I'm afraid your situation won't do for me,' she remarked.
That was all she said. She was perfectly dignified about it. Much as she obviously condemned me, there was no noisy recrimination, no violent vituperative outburst on her part. I followed in her wake to the door. Even at the eleventh hour I hoped for a respite. 'Couldn't something be arranged?' I faltered as my gaze wandered hungrily over her capable-looking form. 'We might get you a gas-cooker—and all that.'
Do not condemn me. Remember that my will had been weakened by housework; six months of doing my own washing-up had brought me to my knees. I was ready to agree to any terms that were offered me. The applicant shook her head. There were too many obstacles in the way, too many radical changes necessary before the place could be made suitable for her. I realized finality in her answer, 'No, nothink,' and closing the front door behind her, I returned to the study to brood. I was still there, thinking bitterly, the shadows of the evening creeping around me, when Henry came in.
'Hallo,' he said gruffly. 'No signs of dinner yet? Do you know the time?'
And only six months ago (before this story opens) he would have embraced me tenderly when he came in and said, 'How is the little wifie-pifie to-night? I hope it hasn't been worrying its fluffy little head with writing and making its hubby-wubby anxious?'
Perhaps you prefer Henry in the former role. Frankly, I did not. 'You needn't be so impatient,' I retorted. 'I expect you've gorged yourself on a good lunch in town. Anyhow, it won't take long to get dinner, as we're having tinned soup and eggs.'
'Oh, damn eggs,' said Henry. 'I'm sick of the sight of 'em.'
You can see for yourself how unrestrained we were getting. The thin veneer of civilization (thinner than ever when Henry is hungry) was fast wearing into holes. There was a pause, and then I coldly remarked: 'You didn't kiss me when you came in.'
It was a custom to which I was determined to cling with grim resolution. If I allowed his treatment of me to become too casual we might continue to drift apart even when we had some one to do the washing-up.
Henry came over to me and bestowed a labial salute. It is the only adequate description I can give of the performance. Then I went to the kitchen and got out the cookery-book.
It is a remarkable thing that I am never able to cook anything without the aid of the book. Even if I prepare the same dish seven times a week I must have the printed instructions constantly before me, or I am lost. This is especially strange, because I have a retentive memory for other things. My mind is crammed with odd facts retained from casual reading. If you asked me, the date of the Tai-ping Rebellion (though you're not likely to) I could tell you at once that it originated in 1850 and was not suppressed until 1864, for I remember reading about it in a dentist's waiting-room when I was fifteen. Yet although I prepared scrambled eggs one hundred times in six months (Henry said it was much oftener than that) I had to pore over the instructions as earnestly when doing my 'century' as on the first occasion.
The subsequent meal was taken in silence. The hay-fever from which I am prone to suffer at all seasons of the year was particularly persistent that evening. A rising irritability, engendered by leathery eggs and fostered by Henry's expression, was taking possession of me. Quite suddenly I discovered that the way he held his knife annoyed me. Further, his manner of eating soup maddened me. But I restrained myself. I merely remarked: 'You have finished your soup, I hear, love.' We had not yet reached the stage of open rupture when I could exclaim: 'For goodness' sake stop swilling down soup like a grampus!' I have never heard a grampus take soup. But the expression seems picturesque.
Henry, too, had not quite lost his fortitude. My hay-fever was obviously annoying him, but he only commented: 'Don't you think you ought to go to a doctor—a really reliable man—with that distressing nasal complaint of yours, my dear?' I knew, however, that he was longing to bark out: 'Can't you do something to stop that everlasting sniffing? It's driving me mad, woman.'
How long would it be before we reached this stage of debacle? I brooded. Then the front door bell rang.
'You go,' I said to Henry.
'No, you go,' he replied. 'It looks bad for a man if he is master of the house to answer the door.'
I do not know why it should look bad for a man to answer his own door unless he is a bad man. But there are some things in our English social system which will ever remain unquestioned. I rose and went to open the front door. The light from the hall lamp fell dimly on a lank female form which stood on the doorstep. Out of the dusk a voice spoke to me. It said, 'I think you're wantin' a cook-general?'
I cried out in a loud voice, saying, 'I am.'
'Well, I'm Elizabeth Renshaw. You wrote to me. I got your letter sent on from the Registry Office along with ninety others. But I liked yours the best, so I thought there'd be no 'arm in coming to see——'
'Come in, Elizabeth,' I said earnestly. 'I'm glad you liked my letter.'
I began to wonder if I was not a great writer after all.
I piloted Elizabeth in and bade her be seated. Strangely enough, my usual hopeful expectations entirely deserted me at that moment. I felt that the interview would be fruitless. They say hope springs eternal in the human breast, but my breast didn't feel human just then. It was throbbing with savage and sanguinary thoughts. Perhaps it was the eggs. Many animals are rendered ferocious by an over-diet of meat. I can testify (so can Henry) that an over-diet of eggs has exactly the same effect on human beings. I think they stimulate the wrong kind of phagocytes. They can make the mildest and most forgiving person wild and vindictive. Henry always declares, when he reads of a man murdering his wife under exceptionally brutal circumstances, that she must have been giving him too many scrambled eggs. In fact, he wrote articles about it, entitled 'The Psychology of Diet,' in the Sunday papers, signed 'By a Physician.'
Henry is not a physician. Neither is he 'An Eminent Surgeon,' 'A Harley Street Expert,' an 'Ex-M.P.,' 'A Special Crime Investigator,' or 'A Well-known Bishop,' although he has written under all these pseudonyms. Do not blame Henry. In private life he seeks the truth as one who seeks the light, but by profession he is a journalist. Not being an expert in anything, he can write about everything—which is the true test of the born journalist.
But to return to Elizabeth. With the remembrance of the similar interview of only a few hours before still rankling in my mind, I looked at her a little austerely. This time it was I who began the causerie.
'First of all I must tell you,' I said, 'that we have no hot water circulator.'
'Carn't abide them things,' commented Elizabeth; 'they bust sometimes and blows folks up.'
'We have no outside help,' I continued.
'An' a good thing, too. One place I was in the char 'elped 'erself to things an' it was me who was blamed fer it.'
'We have no gas-cooker.'
'Well, that's all right, then. Don't understand 'em. Give me a proper kitchen range, that's all I ask.'
I looked up hopefully. If all she asked for was a kitchen range I should be glad enough to give her a little thing like that. But the supreme test was yet to come. 'We don't send everything to the laundry,' I began.
'I 'ope you don't,' she broke in, 'leastways my clothes. The state they send 'em back, 'arf torn to ribbons. A girl never 'as 'er 'and out of 'er pocket buying new things. Besides, I like a bit o' washin'—makes a change, I always say.'
My heart began to beat so loudly with hope that I could hardly hear my own voice as I asked, 'How . . . how soon can you come?'
'To-morrow, if you like,' she answered casually. 'I've 'ad a row with the friend I'm stayin' with and I can't abide living-in with folks I've fallen out with.'
I struggled to reconstruct this sentence and then, remembering what was required of me, I remarked, 'And your references?'
She gave me the address of her last place.
'Are they on the 'phone?' I questioned eagerly. 'If so, I'll settle the thing at once.' It seemed they were. I tottered to the telephone. My call was answered by a woman with a thin, sharp voice.
'I am sorry,' she said in answer to my query, 'I must refuse to answer any questions concerning Elizabeth Renshaw.'
'But you only need say "yes" or "no." Is she honest?'
'I am not in a position to give you a reply.'
'Am I to understand that she isn't sober?'
'I cannot answer that question.'
'Look here, she hasn't murdered any one, has she?'
'I am not in a position——'
'Oh, hang the woman,' I muttered, jerking up the receiver. But I felt the situation was an awkward one. What sinister and turbid happenings were connected with Elizabeth and her last place? I meditated. If she were not sober it was, after all, no business of mine so long as she got through her work. And if she didn't we should be no worse off than we were at present.
If she were dishonest it might be awkward, certainly, but then there was nothing of very much value in the house, Henry and I merely being writers by profession. Most of our friends are writers, too, so we have not the usual array of massive silver wedding gifts about the place, but quite a lot of autograph photos and books instead. The value of these might not be apparent to the casual pilferer. My meditations got no further. I decided to lock up my silk stockings and best handkerchiefs and engage Elizabeth without delay. As a matter of fact, I afterwards discovered that her career had been blameless, while she had every foundation for her favourite declaration, 'I wouldn't take a used postage stamp, no, nor a rusty nail that wasn't my own.'
I do not condemn the woman I interviewed on the telephone, reprehensible as was her conduct. Perhaps she, too, was living on eggs and it had warped her better nature.
'I suppose you can cook all right?' I asked Elizabeth as ten minutes later, all arrangements made, I accompanied her to the door.
'Me? I'm a rare 'and at cookin'. My friend's 'usband ses 'e's never come across any one who can cook a steak like I can.'
'A steak,' I murmured ecstatically, 'richly brown with softly swelling curves——'
'Rather underdone in the middle,' supplemented Elizabeth, 'just a little bit o' fat, fairly crisp, a lump o' butter on the top, and I always 'old that a dash o' fried onion improves the flavour.'
'How beautiful,' I murmured again. It sounded like a poem. Swinburne or de Musset have never stirred me so deeply as did that simple recitation.
Elizabeth, seeing that she had an attentive audience, continued, 'Take roast pork, now. Well, I always say there's a lot in the cookin' o' that, with crisp cracklin', apple sauce an' stuffin'——-'
'Don't go on,' I, broke in, feeling in my weakened state, unable to stand any more. Tears that men weep had risen to my eyes. 'Promise,' I said, taking her toil-worn hand, 'that you will come to-morrow.'
'Right-o,' said Elizabeth, and her lank form disappeared in the darkness. I staggered into the dining-room. Henry was sitting at the disordered dinner table jotting down notes. At any other time this would have irritated me, because I knew it was a preliminary to his remark that as he had an article to write which must be finished that evening he would not be able to help me with the washing-up. A hackneyed dodge of his. Oh, I could tell you a tale of the meanness of men.
'Henry, something has happened,' I began.
Without looking round he remarked, 'Don't disturb me. I must write up a brief biographical sketch of Courtenay Colville, the actor. He's been taken seriously ill and may be dead just in time for the morning papers.' In this way do journalists speak. To them life and death, all the tremendous happenings of the world—wars, revolutions, or even weddings of revue actresses—are just so much matter for printed and pictorial display. Do you think, if a great and honoured statesman dies, sub-editors care two pins about his public services? Not they. All they worry about is whether he is worth double-column headings, a long primer intro., and a line across the page.
'I didn't know Courtenay Colville was so ill,' I commented mildly. What I did know was that he was reported to have sprained his right toe at golf, and only an hour previously I should have commented caustically on Henry's description of this 'serious illness.' Now I came up to him and put my arm about his neck.
'I've just put on a clean collar—be careful,' he said, shaking off my hand.
'Henry, dear, I've landed a servant at last,' I breathed.
He looked up and, for a moment, I felt that I ought not to have told him so suddenly. But joy does not often kill. I went and knelt beside him. 'Dearest,' I whispered, 'it seems as though all the bitterness and misunderstanding between you and me is to be swept away at last. She can cook steaks, dear—juicy steaks, pork with crackling——'
'Sage and onion stuffing?' burst in a hoarse murmur from Henry.
'Yes, and large mutton chops, rich in fat——'
'Dearest, how splendid,' whispered Henry. Our lips met in ecstacy.
That evening was one of the happiest we have ever spent. Henry and I sat together on the divan and looked at the cookery-book. There was no doubt about it. Henry said, that Mrs. Beeton was a wonderful woman. We felt that she and Mr. Beeton must have been tremendously happy in their married life.
The illustrations to the book delighted us, too, with their bold outlines, vigorous colouring, and, attention to detail. Henry and I rather favour the impressionist school in art, but when you're admiring a picture of salmon mayonnaise it refreshes you to distinguish the ingredients.
Elizabeth arrived the next day, bringing with her a small—perplexingly small—brown paper parcel. The rest of her luggage, she said, was on the way. It remained on the way so long that I finally got uneasy and began to question her about it. She did not seem so disturbed at the prospect of its being lost as I did. At last, when I declared my intention of writing Carter Paterson's about it on her behalf, she confessed. Frankness is one of her distinguishing qualities.
'My box is still at my friend's,' she explained. 'You see, when I goes to a new place I never 'ave my luggage sent on until I feel I'm going to settle. It saves a lot o' bother—if I don't stop.'
'I hadn't thought of that,' I commented feebly.
'I brought a clean cap and another pair o' stockings with me, so I'm all right for a fortnight,' she went on. Her creed, like her change of underclothing, was obviously simple. Mournfully I withdrew from the kitchen to meditate.
So we were on probation. It was a tremulous time. I bade Henry tread softly and not to forget to rub his feet on the mat. I gave all my orders to Elizabeth in a voice which blended deference with supplication. I strove hard to live up to what I thought must be her conception of the Perfect Mistress. And when, the fortnight expired, Carter Paterson drove up and deposited a small corded box on the hall mat, I felt it to be a personal triumph. But Henry said I had nothing to do with it. To this day he declares that Elizabeth decided to stop because she so earnestly desired to serve such a gentle master.
No doubt you will have guessed that Henry is a better and sounder writer than I. He has helped me a lot with his criticism and advice, for he is fastidious regarding style. There used to be a time, before he came along, when I walked in darkness, often beginning sentences with conjunctions and ending them with adverbs; I have even split infinitives and gone on my way rejoicing. I am now greatly improved, though one of the incurable things I shall never eradicate from my system is a weakness for beginning sentences with 'but.' But if you observe it, I hope you will kindly pass it over without remark.
Henry often talks to me about construction. 'If you are writing a book,' he says, 'don't introduce all your characters in the first chapter. Let them develop gradually.'
Now that is sound advice. It was not, however, for the sake of construction that I refrained from telling you about The Kid at the very beginning. I was impelled to silence by the same reason which kept me from mentioning The Kid to Elizabeth until her box had arrived and she had settled down. I feel sure you do not want to hear about The Kid any more than Elizabeth did. It is annoying to read about children. If they are good they cloy, and if bad they irritate. The Kid is neither. In any case, it is time she came home now, so she will have to drop in here. During my servantless period she stayed with friends—which was a good thing for her digestion and my nervous system. Now there was no longer any excuse—I mean, it was now time for her to return.
She is what you would call a boisterous child, overflowing with ebullition of spirits, joie de vivre, bonhomie, and all those attributes which cause people possessing them to make a noise. When she enters a room you always think of those lines, 'the mountains skipped like rams, and the little hills like young sheep.'
She descended on Henry and me just a year after our marriage. As we have now been married ten years you will be able to calculate her age if you are good at arithmetic.
Elizabeth did not disapprove of The Kid. It might have been awkward if she had. As a matter of fact, they became close companions at sight. There were certain affinities between them. Elizabeth, for example, although perhaps not so habitually sticky as The Kid, like her didn't seem able to remain clean or tidy for longer than half an hour at a time. Also, Elizabeth believing in Signs, The Kid revered her for her mysticism—about the only person who ever did. She used to beg to be allowed to study her Dream Book, and every evening before bedtime would go into the kitchen and—sitting amid that wild disorder that is necessary to Elizabeth before she can really feel at home—'look up' her dream of the previous night.
Try as she would, the poor child never seemed to have the sort of vision that, in the words of the book, had 'excellent portent.' 'I don't get the nice things,' I once heard her remark, 'like white horses, you know, which, it says, portend honours, riches and rare gifts. Did you ever dream of white horses, Elizabeth?'
'That I did—wunst.'
'And did you get the honours, and all those things, Elizabeth?'
'Well, I got the rare gifts in a manner o' speaking. My gran'mother died a month later an' left me a pair o' jet earrings and a jet bracelet to match—one o' them stretchin' ones, on elastic, you know.'
That incident established Elizabeth in The Kid's estimation as a prophet. Old Moore himself couldn't have done better.
I did not pay much attention to these things; and it was not until Elizabeth had been with me for some time that I discovered her intense fatalism. She ordered her life by Signs, in fact. You or I might drop a tablespoon on the floor and think nothing of it, but she would tell you at once it was a Sign that a tall dark lady was coming to the house. If a knife fell you would hear her mutter 'That's a man.' According to Elizabeth, success in life is in no wise due to personal effort—it all depends on whether you are 'born lucky.'
Unfortunately Elizabeth was 'born unlucky'—unfortunately for me as well as her. Destiny, having now woven my life with hers, it made me unlucky, too. For example, she would come to me and announce, 'I've been unlucky an' broke the teapot this mornin'. That means I'll break another two things afore the week's out. It always goes in threes.'
'Then hadn't you better smash something that is of no value at once,' was my obvious suggestion, 'and get it over?'
But Elizabeth, entrenched in her convictions, would shake her head. 'That's no good. I've tried that afore an' it didn't work. You see, it 'as to be done unexpected to break the spell.' So the spell had to be broken also. Clearly, human intervention was no good at all. Fate was against both of us.
There is something positively uncanny in the way misfortune lies in wait for that girl. You would think that after causing her to break two full breakfast services it would leave her alone for a while. But no; she was half-way through the third before her luck showed any signs of changing.
Spilling the salt accounted for three burnt saucepans and the collapse of the plate rack (at the moment fully charged); while seeing the new moon through glass caused her to overlook the fact that she had left a can in the middle of the staircase. Afterwards (during the week that I waited on her on account of her sprained ankle) she said she would never go near a window again until the moon was at full and quite safe.
Of course, I do my best to parry these mysterious blows of Fate. I remember when she first undertook to clean the drawing-room I took away everything that a mysterious agency might cause to 'come in two' in her hands. I left her alone with the grand piano and scrubbing materials, and went out to spend the afternoon with cheerful countenance. I returned rather late, and directly Elizabeth opened the door to me I saw that something was wrong.
'I've been unlucky,' she began.
'Unlucky!' I faltered. 'But what with? Don't say the piano came in two in your hands?'
'It wasn't my 'ands, it was my feet. The floor gave way an' I went through.'
'You went through the floor!' I marvelled. Then my face cleared. The house was not mine, and, after all, the landlord has no right to escape these unusual machinations of Fate.
'I knew somethink would 'appen when I put the boots on the table by accident this mornin',' she explained, 'It's always a Bad Sign.'
You must not think, however, that Elizabeth ever allows her fatalism to interfere with her judgment. I recall the occasion when she came to me looking actually concerned and remarked: 'I'm sorry, 'm, but them two varses that was on the mantelpiece in the pink bedroom——'
I started up. 'Don't dare to say you've been unlucky with them!'
'No'm, I wasn't unlucky. I was just careless when I broke those.'
A low moan escaped my lips. They were the Sevres vases that I loved dearest of my possessions, and which, in the words of those who keep shops, 'cannot be repeated.' I regarded Elizabeth angrily, no longer able to control my wrath. I am at times (says Henry) a hasty woman. I ought to have paused and put my love of Sevres vases in the balance with the diet of scrambled eggs and the prospect of unlimited washing-up, and I know which side would have tipped up at once. However, I did not pause, caring not that the bitter recriminations I intended to hurl at her would bring forth the inevitable month's notice; that, at the first hint of her leaving me, at least a dozen of my neighbours would stretch out eager hands to snatch Elizabeth, a dozen different vacant sinks were ready for her selection. I did not care, I say; I had loved my vases and in that moment I hated Elizabeth.
But she began to speak before I did. 'It isn't as if I'd been unlucky—I couldn't ha' 'elped that. But I know when I'm in the wrong'—she unfolded a parcel she had in her hand as she spoke—'so I went out larst night and bought these to replace what I broke. Right's right, I always say'; and she laid down before me a pair of vases on which were emblazoned gigantic and strangely-hued flowers that could belong to no earthly flora.
'They're bigger'n the varses I broke,' she murmured, regarding her purchase with satisfaction.
Then I noted that she wore an expression of lofty pride, that she glowed with the calm satisfaction of one who has made ample reparation. Looking at Elizabeth just then you might almost have thought that she had a soul. Really, it gave one an odd feeling.
I picked up her offering and regarded it a moment in silence, while my aesthetic nature shook to its foundations. Stifling the moan of horror that had risen to my lips, I faced her with a smile. Balaclava heroes could have done no more.
'Thank you, Elizabeth,' I said humbly.
Marion often says that if Elizabeth hadn't . . . but I believe I haven't told you about Marion yet. I'm afraid I shall never learn construction, in spite of Henry.
Well, Marion is Henry's sister. She is what you would call a really nice girl. Everybody likes her and sends for her when in trouble or needing advice. Women adore her and tell her all their secrets, and get her to alter their dresses for them. Men seek her company in order to pour out their worries and anxieties into her sympathetic ear. She is always acting as intermediary in love affairs that are not running smoothly and need the intervention or assistance of a third party. But—and this is where the poignant touch comes in—she never had a love affair of her own. I could not understand why. It isn't that she's unattractive, being quite pretty in that feminine clinging way which we generally connect with the Victorian era.
There is a certain type of man who admires this type of woman. He writes to the newspapers, clamouring loudly to be told where the 'nice' girls are (the girls of modest mien who know only the gentle, housewifely arts), and signs himself 'Old-Fashioned' or 'Early Victorian,' or merely gives baffling initials, always being careful not to disclose his identity. If he really wants these sort of girls why doesn't he give a name and address to which they can be forwarded?
It is my belief that men like these 'nice' homely women as mothers, but do not seek for them as wives. But, I ask, how are they to be mothers—and still remain 'nice'—if they are not first to be selected as wives? If the position isn't faced they will soon die out altogether and become as rare as the brontosaurus. We shall go to museums and see exhibited, 'Fossilized remains of "Nice Girl": supposed to exist in early part of twentieth century. Rare specimen.'
Everybody said Marion ought to be married as she had those fine qualities which belong to the ideal home-maker. Nearly every man who knew her declared that she would make a perfect wife—and then went off and married someone else. They said the chap would be lucky who got her—which was true enough—but the idea of going in to win her didn't seem to occur to any one of them.
So here was Marion, sweet and lovable, who would make a delightful mother of children and of a home a haven of refuge, languishing alone for want of a suitable offer of marriage.
I will frankly admit that I planned various matrimonial schemes for Marion. Many eligible men did I invite to meet her; some fell on stony ground, and others made excuses and stayed away.
I remained undaunted, although I got no assistance from Henry, who strongly disapproved of my manoeuvres. In any case, he would never have been of much help in the matter, being quite unable to distinguish between the Right and the Wrong kind of man. Also, nearly all his friends are either married with grown-up children, or elderly widowers with hearts so firmly embedded in the graves of their former wives that it would be perfectly impossible to try to excavate them again.
The annoying thing about Henry, too, is his lack of discernment regarding men. I have known him speak glowingly, and with unabated enthusiasm, of 'a most interesting chap' he has met at his club, referring to him as 'altogether delightful,' 'a charming conversationalist,' and so on, until I have felt impelled to ask Henry to bring this treasure home to dinner.
Then, after expending myself in the preparation of such things as hors d'oeuvres and iced cocktails and putting on my most becoming frock Henry has walked in with a veritable monster of a man. You know the kind I mean. Quite good and God-fearing and all that, but with one of those dreadful clematis moustaches which cling half over the face, beginning at the nostrils and curling under the chin, a form which undulates in the region of the waistcoat, and a slow and pompous conversation (mainly devoted to the discussion of politics in the 'fifties).
I remember, shortly after one of these visitations, Henry ringing me up on the 'phone and asking if it was convenient to bring a man home to dinner that evening.
'What is he like?' I inquired, still smarting under recent experiences, 'has he much moustache—I mean, is he nice?'
Henry paused. 'Oh, all right. I don't know whether you'd care for him. Perhaps I'd better not——'
'Yes, bring him if you want to, dear,' I conceded. I am not one of those fussy wives. I like Henry to feel that he can bring a friend home whenever he likes; but on this occasion I did not make unusual preparations. After bidding Elizabeth turn the cold meat into curry and judiciously water the soup to make it enough for four instead of three, I tidied my hair and descended into the hall to see Henry helping a man off with his overcoat—and such a man! It was the dashing, the handsome, the witty Harvey Trevor (political writer on the Morning Sun).
It was too late to back upstairs again and improvise upon my toilette, for they both looked up and saw me at that moment. So there I stood, like a stag at bay, with my nose unpowdered (Henry would say that a stag doesn't powder its nose, but you will know what I mean) wearing my dullest and most uninspired house-frock, and hurling silent anathemas at my heartless husband.
You will now understand how useless Henry was as an ally in my matrimonial plans for Marion. But I was doggedly determined that she should make some man happy. At last, indeed, it seemed as though my efforts were to be crowned with success when George Harbinger appeared on the scene.
He took to her at once and said that she was just the sort of girl his mother would like. He declared that Marion's oyster patties were things of pure delight and ought to be eaten to slow music. (Yes, I always got Marion to make some of her special pastry when the eligibles came to dine.) He openly sought her society. They even played draughts together and he always won. Everything was going splendidly.
I was especially satisfied, for George Harbinger was an estimable man. He was an assessor, and entirely reliable. Indeed, I believe it would be difficult to find an assessor who is not. When you read the police court cases you find all sorts of professions and followings represented in the charge sheets, from actors down to editors, but have you ever heard of an assessor who defaulted, who committed bigamy, arson, larceny, murder, or neglected to pay his income tax? No, you have not. Also, you seldom hear of an unmarried assessor. They are known to be such steady, dependable men that they are always snapped up at once. Thus you can understand how pleased I was to get hold of George.
One evening it seemed as though things were getting to a climax. George had eaten four of Marion's oyster patties at dinner and, after retaining her hand for an undue length of time at parting, asked if he could see her alone if he called the following evening, as he had something important to say to her.
Marion was in a flutter. She admitted that she 'rather liked' George. (Your nice girl never says outright that she's keen on a man.) 'And what do you think,' she confessed, 'he said when we were playing draughts to-night that I was just the sort of girl his mother would like, and—and——'
'Yes, go on,' I said tensely.
'That he never believed in a man marrying a girl of whom his mother did not approve. What do you think he meant by that, dear?'
'Everything,' I said, and took a silent decision to leave no stone unturned to bring the thing off all right. I planned to leave them alone in the rose drawing-room with its pink-shaded lights—Marion looks her best under pink-shaded lights. She was thirty-seven, but only looked thirty when she had her hair waved and wore her grey charmeuse.
I, myself, prepared her for the interview. I dressed her hair becomingly and clasped my matrix necklace around her throat. Then, soon after George arrived, I excused myself on the plea of having an article to write—which was perfect truth—and left them alone together.
Doesn't it give you a feeling of contentment when you have done a good action? You are permeated with a sort of glow which comes from within. After closing the drawing-room door on Marion and George, I sat down to work in an atmosphere of righteousness. I could almost imagine there must be the beginnings of a faint luminous disc around my head.
The subject of the article I now began to write was 'Should Women Propose?' Treading carefully on the delicate ground of the Woman's Page, I decided that they must do nothing that is so utterly unfeminine. 'But there are many subtle little ways in which a woman can convey to a man her preference for him,' I penned, 'without for a moment overstepping the bounds of that maidenly reticence which is one of the charms of——'
The door opened and Elizabeth entered. Elizabeth has a way of entering when I am most likely to lose the thread of my sentence.
'I'm fair worried about Miss Marryun,' she began.
I looked up with a start. 'What on earth do you mean?'
'Well, you see, the Signs are against 'er. They've bin against 'er for days. Yesterday I see 'er sneeze three times to the left, an' that's bad. Then when she put her right shoe on 'er wrong foot by accident, I felt somethin' was comin'. But after I found two triangles an' a mouse in 'er cup to-day I knew——'
'A mouse in her cup!' I marvelled.
'Fortune tellin' by tea-leaves, 'm. Well, a mouse is a Bad Sign. It's my belief that she won't get no propogal this evenin'.'
I looked at Elizabeth sternly. I do not wish to insinuate for one moment that she is in the habit of listening at doors, but she certainly gains an insight into our private lives that is nothing short of uncanny.
'I just been lookin' at the cards,' she continued, 'an' they say as plain as can be that Mr. 'Arbinger isn't the one. 'E's the wrong colour.'
'And what colour do you expect him to be?' I demanded.
''Im bein' fair takes King o' Dimonds. Well, Queen o' Clubs—that's Miss Marryun—is seven cards removed from 'im and the three o' spades comin' between spells disappointment. But, as I ses to 'er quite recent, I ses, "If you want to see your true love aright go into the garding by pale moonlight, walk in a circle, and say,—
"If I my true love now would see——"'
'Elizabeth,' I broke in, 'don't forget to grill master's bloaters for breakfast.' In this way do I recall her and remind her of her duty when she ignores the chasms of caste and class distinction which yawn between us.
'Grilled, 'm? Right-o. Well, as I was sayin' about Miss Marryun. She's gotta ring in 'er fortune and she will get married, but it will be to a dark man who'll cross water to meet her. She's like me. She isn't fated to meet the right one yet.'
This was a subtle reference to her own chaotic love affairs. Elizabeth never has any lack of young men.' But they are like ships that pass in the night (her night out as a rule), and one by one they drift off, never stopping to cast anchor in her vicinity. You know what I mean. Elizabeth can't keep her young men. They seem attracted to her at first, but, as I say, after a very short time they drift.
'We shall see wot we shall see,' went on Elizabeth, 'there aint no knowin' an' there aint no tellin'. But wot I ses is, if this 'ere propogal don't come orf this evenin', I gotta plan. Of course, one marries accordin' to Fate, but sometimes it doesn't do no 'arm to give Fate an 'elpin' 'and, like.'
Nodding darkly, she melted out. I did not at the time attach any significance to her final words. How was I to guess at those schemes which were even then fermenting in her mind and ended by involving not only Marion and Another, but the entire family?
Marion gave me what the newspapers term 'a verbatim report' of the interview which took place between her and George Harbinger. She omitted no detail. As far as I understand, when I left them he was standing with his right foot on the fender and the other on the rug, and his elbow on the mantelpiece. She was sitting in the easy chair to the left of the fireplace, in the full glow of the shaded lamp, knitting a jumper. There was a pause and then he began, 'You never seem idle for a minute. How nimble your fingers are!'
Marion knitted a little harder.
'I have always hoped,' he went on, 'that the woman I married would be fond of her needle. There is something so restful in the idea of coming home in the evening to see one's companion sitting at the fireside engaged in such womanly tasks.'
Marion said that, no doubt, after a hard day at assessing, such a sight would be soothing to a man.
He now came and sat beside her. 'I want to ask you something rather important,' he said, 'but I wonder if I have known you long enough to warrant it.'
She paused in her knitting for a moment to remind him—very earnestly—that real friendship and understanding is more a matter of affinity than actual length of acquaintance.
'You're right,' he said, pondering, 'and, of course, you're so . . . so sensible.'
Women hate to be told they are sensible by any one but their mothers-in-law. But how could an assessor know that? He continued to regard her earnestly. 'I feel sure, too, that you're so much older than you look.'
To this day Marion says she's not sure whether this was intended as a compliment or a deadly insult.
'Do you think,' he went on, 'that a man should ask a woman to marry him only when she has reached maturity?'
Marion, moving well into the glow of the pink-shaded lamp, said it depended on the stage of maturity. Nowadays, when women so often look younger than they really are, it is difficult to tell.
He seemed relieved. 'That's exactly what I feel about it. But supposing my mother shouldn't approve of my choice? I hate family squabbles above everything. I have always maintained that I would only marry the woman that my mother really liked.'
'Isn't that rather a handicap for your future wife?' asked Marion gently. 'But why not ask your mother's opinion of her?'
'That's just what I want to speak to you about,' he put in eagerly. 'I . . . I want to ask you if I can introduce you to my mother?'
The knitting fell from Marion's nerveless fingers. She can show you the uneven row on the jumper where she dropped fifteen stitches at that moment.
'I shall be most happy to meet your mother,' she murmured.
'This is really good of you,' he said eagerly. 'You see, you're the very one she would take to in an instant. I knew it directly I met you. I don't know any one else she would listen to so willingly, if you will consent to intervene.'
'Intervene!' echoed Marion. Somehow she did not like the word. Not at that moment, I mean.
'Yes, intervene,' he repeated. There was no mistaking it—what could be clearer. Latin, inter, between; venio, I come. Marion may have translated it differently, but she had served in the capacity of buffer too often to misinterpret its meaning.
'I am to understand that you wish for my aid in a love affair?' she said.
'That's just about it. You see, I always hoped I should fall in love with a quiet, homely, staid sort of girl, but dash it all, you can't govern these things, can you?'
'Sometimes one has to,' said Marion, picking up dropped stitches.
'So I've completely lost my heart to a girl who—well, she's an actress. She's second from the left in the front row chorus of "Whizz-Bang" at the Hilarity Theatre; I tell you she's wonderful.'
'No doubt,' said Marion, bending lower over her knitting.
'Lottie's quite a good little girl, you know, but she's so young—barely twenty—and she can't cook or sew or housekeep or do any of those things which my mother approves. But she dances wonderfully and kicks higher than anyone else in the chorus——'
'And you want me to make your mother appreciate the . . . the . . . high kicks?' broke in Marion rather bitterly.
'Well, not exactly, but you know what mothers are—about the stage, I mean. So don't you understand that if some sensible little woman like you were to speak to her about it, she might reconstruct her views——'
He paused, staring in a puzzled way at Marion. Beneath her gentle exterior she has a decided temper which she is apt to deplore and, she affirms, must instantly be held in check. This, however, was an occasion when she did not seem to think the check action need be applied. She faced George with flashing eyes.
'If you were anything of a man,' she declared, 'you would manage an affair like that alone without asking help from your woman friends. Good evening.'
'Good evening,' responded George, not, I suppose, at the moment thinking of anything more original to say. He departed in a pensive mood.
'And that,' said Marion, concluding the narrative, 'is all there is to be told.'
She sat before me with her eyes downcast, her lips quivering, and a fierce anger rose within me against George Harbinger and mankind in general who could be so blind to Marion's excellent qualities. As I took her in my arms and comforted her, kissing her soft cheeks and fluffy hair, I felt that if I were a man she would be the one woman above all others that I would desire to have and to hold henceforth and for evermore. 'Never mind,' I said tenderly, 'some day you'll meet another who will——'
'No, no, I never shall,' interposed Marion, now openly weeping on my shoulder. 'I shall never interest any one; I know that now. You can't understand, Netta, for men are attracted towards you. If Henry died tomorrow, you'd have half a dozen offers of marriage at once.'
I was rather startled at this suggestion, which somehow hinted disregard for the unconscious Henry.
'I think I must lack charm,' went on Marion in a choked voice. 'Who was it described charm as a—a—sort of a bloom on a woman, and said if she had that she didn't need anything else?'
'It was Barrie,' I said, stroking her hair, 'but don't take any notice of him, dear.'
'It's just what a man would say. Oh, Netta, why is life so hard to a woman? Why must she always be the one to stifle her feelings, repress her natural instincts, wait for man to take the lead? Why can't she be the leading spirit if she wishes, without being humiliated? Why shouldn't women propose?'
'That's just what I've been writing about,' I said involuntarily.
She raised her head from my shoulder. 'And what did you say about it?'
'I held that a woman can—er—oh, hang it all, never mind what I wrote about it. What I say is that of course they ought to propose if they want to. There should be perfect equality of the sexes.'
'Well, if there was,' put in Marion, her practical common sense coming to her aid, 'it wouldn't after all make a man want to marry me just because it was I who put the question. It's no use, Netta. I'm a born old maid. I've got to go through life heart-hungry, loving other people's babies instead of my own, and stepping aside to let all the fair things go past me.'
Poor little Marion! She looked very wistful and pathetic at that moment. A lump rose in my throat as I strove to dry her eyes and find words of comfort.
She sobbed on unrestrainedly, however, and nothing I could say would soothe her. 'Marion, darling,' I whispered, my own eyes growing moist, 'don't cry any more. Isn't there anything I can say to cheer you up? Can't I suggest anything——?'
The door opened and Elizabeth entered. She carried a tray in her hand on which were a bottle of stout and a glass.
'I thort so,' she said, setting down the tray and looking at Marion's drooping form. 'Ah, these men—'ounds, I call 'em. I came in to 'ave a word with Miss Marryun and cheer 'er up, like. I bin through it myself, so I knows.'
She approached Marion and laid a damp red hand on her shoulder. 'I bin lookin' at the cards for you, miss, an' I see a loverly future,' she began in a coaxing voice. 'I see a tall dark man crossin' water for you, with a present in 'is right 'and.'
Marion, who was not without a sense of humour, smiled rather wanly. Encouraged, Elizabeth continued: 'Wot's the use o' spoilin' your pretty eyes cryin' for the moon—by which I mean Mr. 'Arbinger—when 'e isn't your Fate? Why, bless you, I was once goin' to marry a plumber's mate, and jest a week afore the weddin 'e went orf with some one else an' owin' me arf-a-crown, too. I was cut up at the time, but I know now 'e wasn't my Fate, 'avin been told since that I'm goin' to marry a man wot'll work with 'is brain. So cheer up, Miss Marryun, and come an' 'ave this nice glarss o' stout I've brought in for you.' She unscrewed the bottle as she spoke. 'I always find that when things are at their worst, an' you're feelin' real pipped like, a glarss o' stout acts like magic. Yes, it's the right stuff, is stout.'
The situation was distinctly ludicrous. Yet neither Marion nor I laughed. We watched Elizabeth solemnly pouring out the stout, after which she handed it to Marion, who, though she 'never touches' anything alcoholic as a rule, took it and drank it off 'like a lamb,' as Elizabeth expressed it.
There was a pause. Then the corners of Marion's mouth ceased to droop. She smiled. I smiled. Elizabeth smiled.
There was another pause. 'I think, Elizabeth,' I remarked, 'I'll have a glass—just a small glass—of stout myself.'
'You do right, 'm. I'll fetch you a glass.'
'And Elizabeth, if you'd care to have some——'
'Thank you very much 'm, I did take the liberty of 'avin' a taste already, but a little drop more wouldn't do me any 'arm, as the sayin' is.'
She went out. Marion set down her glass and put away her pocket-handkerchief. 'How silly of me to worry about Mr. Harbinger,' she said. 'After all, I suppose Fate never intended us for each other.'
I recognized in a flash that Elizabeth had succeeded where I had failed, and I was conscious of a certain admiration for her methods. Yet at that moment no hint of subsequent events filtered into my mind; I did not suspect—even dimly—the possibilities of Elizabeth.
Neither Elizabeth or Marion like William. Of the two, Elizabeth is more tolerant towards him, merely commenting that 'she couldn't abide his ways.' Marion, however, views him with an antipathy entirely foreign to one of her gentle nature. I think, in the light of what happened later, if she had only shown a little more forbearance towards him it might have simplified matters.
William is our friend. He drops in to see us when he likes, sits with his feet on our mantelpiece, strews tobacco ash on the carpet, and always tells me which of my hats are the most unbecoming, so you can imagine what a close friend he is. Though he does not stick any closer than a brother, he is equally as frank. He likes Henry and tolerates me. For the rest of the women in the world he has a strong objection. Not that he is a misogynist; but he always holds that a woman interferes with a man's life. I often think that William would be all the better for a little judicious feminine interference. He has, however, now got beyond the stage of redemption.
Home means nothing more to William than a comfortable ledge below the mantelpiece where he can put his feet, a carpet which will not spoil with tobacco ash, and a few tables and chairs scattered about just to hold a good supply of old magazines and newspapers handy for lighting his pipe. He wears those shaggy, unbrushed-looking clothes which all good women abhor. Worst of all, he is constantly getting imbued with new and fantastic ideas which cause him to live in a (quite unnecessary) ferment of enthusiasm.
A good wife, now, would nip these ideas in the bud and make existence infinitely more restful to him. Henry and he once got up a notion of inventing a new drink which was to make them both everlastingly famous and superlatively rich. They talked about it for hours and had even got to designing the labels and bottles when I stepped in and told Henry not to be a silly ass, that he was making a fool of himself, and a few other sensible wifely things like that which finally brought him to reason. William, however, having no one to bring him to reason, goes on day by day becoming more of a lunatic. I could never understand why there is such a close bond between him and Henry, unless it is because they enjoy arguing together. Henry, being a Scotsman, likes argument; and William, being an Irishman, likes hearing his own voice. Thus they seldom got bored with each other.
The time we did get bored with William was when he turned inventor. It came rather as a surprise to us; and when he began to be abstracted, profoundly meditative, almost sullen, with an apparent desire to be alone, we thought at first that it was the onset of hydrophobia. In fact, we looked it up on the back of the dog-licence to make sure.
William's remarks next became irrelevant. For example, after being wrapped in silence for over half an hour, he suddenly flung out the question, 'How many people do you know who possess a trousers-press?
Faced with the problem, I confessed I could not connect a single acquaintance with a trousers-press. 'Henry hasn't got one,' I admitted.
'Neither have I,' said William. (I didn't doubt that for an instant.) He went on to remark that he knew many men in many walks of life, and only two of them owned a trousers-press, and they shared it between them. Yet the inventor of this apparently negligible article had made a small fortune out of the idea.
'If,' concluded William, 'you can make a small fortune out of a thing that you can dispense with, how much more can you make out of something that you can't do without?'
This sentence I give as William composed it, and from its construction you will understand the state of his mind, for he was as fastidious regarding style as Henry himself. Of course there was some excuse for him. You see, when you're an inventor you can't be anything else. It takes all your time. Judging by William's procedure you must sit up experimenting all night long; you lie down in your clothes and snatch a little sleep at odd moments. When you walk abroad you stride along muttering, waving your arms and bumping into people; you forget to eat; your friends fall away from you. Let me advise parents who are thinking of a career for their sons never to make inventors of them. It's a dog's life. Far better to put them to something with regular hours, say from 10.30 to 4 o'clock, which leaves them with the evenings free.
William wouldn't divulge what his invention was, because, he said, he was afraid of the idea getting about before he took out the patent. He merely told us it was a device which no man living could do without. But he went so far as to show us the inner workings of his discovery (hereinafter referred to as It), which, not knowing what they were for, rather mystified us. I know there was a small suction valve which involved the use of water, because William demonstrated to us one Sunday afternoon in the drawing-room. He said afterwards that the unexpected deluge that broke over the politely interested faces gathered round him was merely due to a leakage in the valve, and he set to work to repair it at once.
At that time William always carried on his person a strange assortment of screws, metal discs, springs, bits of rubber and the like. He pulled them out in showers when he took out his handkerchief; they dripped from him when he stood up. I think he kept them about him for inspiration.
William completed It in a frenzy of enthusiasm. He said that nothing now stood between him and a vast fortune, and in a mood of reckless generosity he promised us all shares, which certainly tended to deepen our interest in the invention. Then he betook himself to the Patent Office.
I saw him the following day, and it occurred to me at once that all was not well with William. For one thing he did not burst in unannounced with hair dishevelled, which seems to be the usual way for an inventor to come into a room; he entered slowly and sat down heavily.
'Is anything wrong with the invention?' I asked.
He pulled out his handkerchief and mopped his brow. A metal disc fell out and rolled unheeded across the floor.
'Nothing is wrong with it,' he answered dully.
'You don't mean that some one else has thought of It before you?'
'Most people seem to have thought of It.' He paused and absently plucked off a stray piece of rubber from his coat sleeve. 'It seems to have originated in America in 1880. Then a large colony of German inventors applied for the patent; a body of Russians were imbued with the idea; several Scandinavians had variations of it. It even seems to have filtered into the brain of certain West African tribes; and in 1918 a Czecho-Slovak——' He paused, overcome with emotion.
'But if It is a thing man can't do without, why haven't we heard of it?' I demanded.
'Men,' replied William sadly, seem determined to do without It. They don't know what is good for them.'
Suddenly he raised his head with the light of enthusiasm in his eyes. 'By the way, I was talking to a chap at the Patent Office who told me that there's an enormous boom in inventing in this country just now. Henry ought to get a good article out of it.'
As a matter of fact it was the only thing that ever was got out of the invention.
William, being an Irishman, didn't let failure depress him in the least. We were all glad to see him rational again—as rational as could be expected from him, I mean. As Elizabeth was wont to express it, ''E aint screwed up like other folk, so what can you expect.' But as I have said, she did not approve of William. It was not so much that she took exception to the trail of tobacco ash that followed in his wake, or the unusual litter he created during his inventive period. She resented the fact that he was unmarried, having, at all times, a strong objection to celibacy.
'When a man gets to the age o' that there Mr. Roarings' (William's surname is Rawlings, so she didn't get so far out for her)—'an' isn't married 'e's cheatin' some pore girl out of 'er rights, I ses,' she declared. 'Selfishness! Spendin' all 'is money on 'isself. W'y isn't 'e married?'
'I don't know, Elizabeth,' I replied, 'but if you like, I'll ask him.'
'That'll do no good. 'E orter be thrown together with the right kind o' young lady and kept up to the scratch. That's wot orter be done. I'll look up the cards for 'im and see wot 'is Signs is. I'd like to see 'im married and settled down.'
'Perhaps you mean to marry him yourself, Elizabeth?'
She gave a snort of indignation. 'Me! 'E's not my style. Give me a young man who can set off a bright necktie an' a white waistcoat with a nice watch an' albert 'ung on to it. But Mr. Roarings' now, 'e'd do well for some one who 'ad settled down, like, with quiet sort o' tastes. I got some one in my mind's eye for 'im already.'
From the moment that Elizabeth took his destiny in hand William was no longer safe, I felt sure. The Signs began to get to work upon him.
'William,' I said to him one day, 'Elizabeth means to marry you.'
'Why should I marry Elizabeth?' he asked placidly.
'I don't mean that she herself is to be the blushing bride. She prefers a man with a taste in waistcoats, a flowing auburn moustache, and a tendency to bright neckties, none of which qualities or quantities you possess. She means to get you married to some one else.'
William slowly removed his pipe from his mouth and regarded me with intense earnestness. He is not the sort of person who lets his emotions ripple to the surface, so his serious mien surprised me. He raised his hand in a prophetic attitude and began to speak. 'Dr. Johnson has rightly said that the incommodities of a single life are necessary and certain, but those of a conjugal state are avoidable. Excellent philosophy. Sooner than get married, my dear madame, I would walk in the wilderness, conversing with no man; I would fly to the fastnesses of Tibet; I would make of myself a hermit in a cave that was strongly barricaded. I would eschew tobacco. I would pay, to the uttermost farthing, any bachelor tax imposed by the State.'
'Do you so utterly abhor the idea of marriage?' I asked, profoundly astonished.
'I do,' said William.
A strange sound broke on our ears. It seemed to come through the keyhole, and resembled the contemptuous sniff with which Elizabeth always expresses incredulity. But, of course, it couldn't have been that.
As I have said, Elizabeth never listens at doors.
(William—although he has a great regard for Pepys—does not himself keep a diary. From time to time, however, he 'chronicles the outstanding events in his career,' as he puts it. The following is one of William's 'chronicles,' which shows more knowledge than I have of the happenings in this chapter.)
William's Story: The more I think of it the more terrible the thing becomes from every aspect. Who could have thought that I, only a few days ago placidly drifting down the stream of life, should be jerked into such a maelstrom of difficulties? I must, however, try to think calmly. As Dr. Johnson has said, 'One of the principal themes of moral instruction is the art of bearing calamities.'
Let me try to narrate the events in their order—to trace, as far as possible, how this particular calamity occurred.
It began with Elizabeth. Or, I should say, she was the bearer of those disastrous tidings which have robbed me of my peace of mind and given me nights of sleepless horror.
Elizabeth, I ought to explain, is employed at the house of my friends, the Warringtons, as domestic worker. Up to the time of which I write I had barely observed the girl, beyond remarking that she was exceedingly lank as to form, and had a distressing habit of breathing very heavily when serving at table, due, I thought, to asthmatic tendencies.
I learned later that it only betokened anxiety lest she should drop the various vessels she was handing round.
The circumstances which brought her particularly under my notice were singular. I had called at the Warringtons' one evening to have a smoke and chat with Henry, as is my wont. Elizabeth, after showing me into the study, told me that her master had gone out, but asked me to wait as he was expected to return every minute. I settled myself down, therefore, reached out for the tobacco jar, while my feet sought the familiar ledge below the mantelpiece, when I observed that Elizabeth was hovering in my vicinity.
'Excuse me, sir,' she said, speaking with apparent hesitation, 'but—but—do you mind if I speak to you?'
'Why shouldn't you speak to me if you want to?' I said, surprised and rather puzzled.
'Well, you see, sir, it's a bit 'ard to tell you. I dunno how to begin exactly—makes me feel like a cat treadin' on 'ot plates.' I quote exactly the rough vernacular of the lower classes in which she habitually expresses herself.
'There is no necessity for you to feel like a cat—or any other animal—treading on plates hot or otherwise when unburdening yourself to me,' I said kindly and benevolently, to put her at her ease. As a matter of fact, I half surmised the cause of her embarrassment. No doubt she had broken some object of value and wished me to act as intermediary with her mistress in the matter. I have frequently heard Mrs. Warrington complain of her ever-recurring breakages.
'If I can assist you in any way,' I continued, 'and intervene——'
'Inter-wot?' said Elizabeth.
'Er—perhaps you desire me to put in a good word for you with your mistress——'
'Do I not,' she broke in. 'I can put in all the good words I want meself—yes, an' a few more, too.'
I was pondering on the remarkable formation of this sentence which lent itself neither to analysis nor parsing, when her next words arrested my instant attention.
'It's about Miss Marryun I wanted to speak to you,' she said.
I stared. Why on earth should she speak to me about Miss Warrington, Henry's sister? I have not noticed her closely, but she is a quiet enough female, I believe, though possessed of an irritating habit of constantly pressing quite unnecessary ash-trays on a man.
To my surprise Elizabeth closed the door at this point and, coming up to me, whispered in a strange husky voice: 'That's just where all the trouble begins. It's what I overheerd 'er sayin' about you.'
I must confess to feeling rather startled. Then I remembered Mrs. Warrington had often commented on Elizabeth's curious proclivities for 'overhearing.' I looked at her coldly. I had not the slightest intention of becoming her confidant.
'Well, well, my good girl,' I retorted briskly, 'listeners never hear any good of themselves—or of other people either, I suppose. So, if you please, we will drop the subject.' I then picked up a book and held it before me to signify that the parley was at an end.
Elizabeth snorted. The term is vulgar, I know, but no other expression is adequate. 'Oo was listenin', I'd like to know?' she asked. 'I sed overheerd. The door was well on the jar and I was dustin' the 'all when I 'ears Miss Marryun a-moanin' and a-sobbin' like. Missus was talkin' to 'er and soothin' 'er. "Don't carry on so," she ses, "for I tells you, it's no use."
'"No use," ses Miss Marryun in a choked sort o' voice, "why is it no use? I love 'im, I adore 'im. Oh, Willyum, Willyum, you'll break my 'art if you go on with this yeer cold indifference——"'
'Stop,' I interposed sternly. At any other time I might have smiled at the girl's quaint phraseology. But I did not smile just then. Dulce est desipere in loco. Wild as the story sounded, it was making me feel decidedly uncomfortable. A slight perspiration had broken out on my forehead. But I threw a strong note of assurance into my voice as I went on: 'Girl, this is a monstrous action on your part to listen—er—overhear at doors and repeat conversations of a most delicate nature to a third party.'
'What-ho,' put in Elizabeth.
'Now let me show you the mistake under which you are labouring. It is true my name is William, but William is a common name. I have remarked, indeed, that the world is pretty full of Williams. Miss Warrington was in no way referring to me.'
'I don't think,' commented Elizabeth.
'Evidently you don't,' I said severely, 'or you would not make such absurd statements.'
'I ain't done yet,' went on this diabolical creature. 'You say it wasn't meant fer you? Listen. When Miss Marryun goes on wringin' 'er 'ands an' sobbin', "I love my Willyum," missus ses, "But 'ow can you love such a big ugly brute of a man wot's allus throwin' 'is tobacco ash about the place, and scrapin' the fendy with 'is feet and never wears a fancy westcoat even at evernin' parties. 'Ow can you love him?" she arsks.
'"I don't know myself," ses Miss Marryun, "but there it is. I'd rather die than live without my Willyum."'
'Silence,' I burst out fiercely, 'do you think I don't know that all this is pure invention on your part—for what reason I, as yet, cannot tell. How dare you concoct such tales?'
'Wait till I've finished, please, sir. The missus, she ses, "But Marryun, my pore dear, it's no use lovin' 'im. 'E ses to me 'is very self the other day, 'e ses, 'Sooner than get married I'd go and dwell in the wilderness, I'd go to Tibbet, be an 'ermit in a cave, give up baccy, and give away every farthin' I 'ad in the world.'"'
A feeling of acute horror swept over me. With a crash my favourite pipe fell from my nerveless fingers and was smashed to atoms on the fender. There was truth in the girl's fantastic story after all. I recalled using such expressions as those when, a little time before, I was discussing conjugal difficulties in a talk with Mrs. Warrington. Obviously the girl could not have made the thing up. I passed my hand wildly across my brow. 'But what have I done that she should fall in love with me? What is there about me to attract any woman?'
'Nothink, as I can see,' she retorted, 'but with a woman's heart there's no knowin' an' there's no tellin'. P'raps you've managed to throw dust in her eyes.'
'I have thrown nothing—I mean, Miss Warrington and I are only slightly acquainted with each other. I have, indeed, barely noticed her. And now you tell me this horrible thing.'
She bridled. 'Wot's 'orrible about it? You ought to be glad. Most men would be proud to marry a young lady 'oo's got such a light 'and for pastry, and can mend up an old pair o' pants to make 'em look like new. She's just the sort of wife——'
'"Wife,"' I interrupted, '"marry"? What do you mean by those words, girl? Do you think for one instant if all the females in Christendom were to fall in love with me I would marry any one of them! No, a thousand times, no. I repeat I will never, never marry.'
'I 'eard yer,' said Elizabeth, 'and do you sit there and mean to tell me that you're going to break a gentle woman's 'eart deliberate?'
The imputation caused me to shudder from head to foot. 'No, no, Elizabeth. If I have unwittingly caused the lady pain I am deeply remorseful. But she must, as soon as possible, be disillusioned.'
'Dish-who?' said Elizabeth. In this peculiar and baffling way does she express herself. It makes a sustained conversation extremely difficult and, at times, almost impossible.
'She must be brought to dislike me, I mean. In this matter I must ask you to help me.' I took a ten-shilling note from my pocket. 'If, from time to time, you will talk to Miss Warrington of my many faults—you can invent what you like——'
'Shan't need to invent much in the way o' faults,' put in the monstrous girl. 'But it's my belief she likes you for 'em. Some women are made like that. Anyway,' she handed me back the note which I had endeavoured to press into her warm, moist palm. 'I'm not wantin' this. I'm not goin' to take blood money to 'elp to break any woman's 'eart.'
It sounded really terrible viewed in that light. 'There is no need for you to put it in that coarse way,' I said, my temper rising. 'I only ask you to help me to regain my peace of mind and secure Miss Warrington's happiness.'
'Well, if you put it like that o' course,' she said, her fingers closing over the note, 'I'm not the one to refuse good money. I'm willin' to do all I can to make you an' Miss Marryun happy.' With a broad grin she sidled out of the room.
As for me, I gathered up the fragments of my pipe and departed. I no longer wished to talk to Henry just then. I wanted to be alone to think, to consider my strategic position. I must go away to some remote place, perhaps not Tibet, but at any rate a quiet spot in the country fully twenty miles out of London. Before going, however, I must in some way show Miss Warrington the utter folly of her illusions regarding my unfortunate self. Nothing must be left undone to achieve that object.
Alas, what troubles, what unending anxiety a woman can cause a man! After getting over this difficulty, I swear I will not even converse with any one of them again. In the meantime I must invoke the aid of this wretched girl Elizabeth. Necessitas non habet legem. Elizabeth is that most irritating necessity.
Elizabeth often speaks of the time when she poisoned The Kid. She says she never had such a 'turn' in all her life, and wouldn't go through such an experience again for all the money in the world. Neither, indeed, would I, or Henry, or Marion. Looking back on the matter, I don't think The Kid cared for it either.
It was a peaceful summer evening. The Kid had just gone to bed and we—Henry, Marion and I—had foregathered in the study. Marion spends most of her time with us, being one of those delightfully restful persons who doesn't need to be 'entertained,' who doesn't talk to you if you want to do a little writing at meal times, and is altogether a desirable visitor. Thus, at the moment of which I write, we sat in perfect amity and silence, Henry working, I working, while every time I looked up my eyes fell on the gratifying vision of dear Marion making a blouse for me. Suddenly the door opened and Elizabeth entered.
'That there medicine you told me to give Miss Moira,' she said. 'I just been looking at it and I see it's got your name on the bottle.' She held it out to me as she spoke.
'Why is The Kid taking medicine?' inquired Marion.
'It's only a little tonic the doctor prescribed. But,' I stared at the bottle Elizabeth had brought in, 'this is my medicine. The chemist must have mixed up the prescriptions when I took them to him.' Suddenly I sprang to my feet. 'Great Heavens! My tonic contains strychnine!'
'And as you've been taking it for some time, I expect the dose has been increased,' said Marion excitedly. 'How much did you give her, Elizabeth?'
'A teaspoonful, miss, as usual.'
I wrung my hands. 'I take only six drops at a time myself! What are we to do?'
'One place I was at,' put in Elizabeth, 'the master was rather fond of a drop too much, an' 'e come 'ome very late one night an' drank spirits o' salt thinkin' it was something else, so we give 'im stuff to bring it up agen.'
'Of course,' said Marion, 'that's the very thing.' Long ago, during the war, she worked in a hospital, so she affects to know something of medicines. 'Give The Kid an emetic at once. Ipecac. Dose 5 minims. Repeat, if necessary. Or salt and water. I'll dash off to the doctor's and ask him what's to be done.' And seizing the bottle she hurried out.
The Kid was sitting up in bed eating her supper when Elizabeth, Henry and I burst breathlessly into her room. Her face was shining with quiet contentment.
'Look, Mama, dear,' she said, 'at the beautiful baked custard Elizabeth has made for my supper. Wasn't it kind of her?'
I snatched the custard away from her grasp. 'Don't eat another mouthful,' I panted, 'you're going to have an emetic. You must be sick at once.'
Mutely questioning inexorable Fate, she raised large, contemplative eyes to mine. 'Must I, Mama? Can't I finish my custard first?'
There is about The Kid's character a stoic philosophy, blended, since she has known Elizabeth, with a certain fatalism. Her habit of saying 'Must I?' when faced with a disagreeable duty, indicates her outlook on life. If those in authority declare she must, then there is no more to be said about it. They represent Fate in action. She now yielded up the custard with a sigh, but obediently drank the mixture I handed her. There was a pause.
'How are you feeling, dear?' I inquired.
'Quite well, thank you, Mama, dear. May I have my custard now?'
'You ought not to be feeling well,' I said, puzzled. 'You'd better have some more drops.'
'Oh, must I, Mama?'
'Yes, dear. Drink this.' I now gave her a slightly larger dose. There was a still longer pause, and Henry, Elizabeth and I waited for her to speak, or express emotion of some sort. At last she opened her lips and said, 'May I have——'
'A basin?' inquired Elizabeth, darting forward.
'——my custard, now, if you please, Elizabeth?'
'No,' I said sternly. 'It's very strange that the ipecac, has had no effect.'
'Try salt and water. There's more about it, like,' remarked Elizabeth. 'I'll fetch some.'
'And hurry,' Henry commanded, 'every moment's delay is making the thing more serious.'
'Now drink this salt and water, darling,' I urged The Kid when Elizabeth reappeared.
'Oh, must I, Mama?'
'Yes. Your life depends upon it.'
She drank rather hastily at that. There was a long, long pause while Elizabeth, Henry and I gazed into each other's eyes and—waited.
'How do you feel now?' I asked at last with strained anxiety.
'I'm feeling rather sick now, thank you, Mama, dear. But perhaps I could manage a little of my cus——'
'No,' I interrupted. 'Can't you be sick, child?'
'I'm afraid I can't, Mama.'
'Then why can't you?' Henry burst out. 'It's dreadful—most unnatural.'
'She's got a stummick like an 'orse,' commented Elizabeth.
'Prompt action is vital,' put in Henry firmly. 'There are other emetics. Mustard and——'
'I've always 'eard that soap and water's good for turnin' any one over,' began Elizabeth.
'Soap and water!' I echoed, 'yes, that sounds the worst—the best, I mean. Get it at once, Elizabeth.'
'Enough to make a good lather, should you think, 'm?'
'Oh, must I?' wailed the Kid, still questioning inexorable Fate.
We all united in preparing the soap and water to avoid delay. Elizabeth boiled the water. Henry cut the soap into small flakes, and I beat it up into a lather. Then, now in a condition of feverish anxiety, I handed The Kid the foaming mixture.
'Drink,' I panted.
'Oh, mus——' she began.
'Don't say that again!' I exclaimed, overwrought by the intensity of my emotions. 'Can't you see how serious it is, child? You might die any minute.'
She drank off the contents of the glass without further question.
'Well, that ought to do it,' commented Henry, looking at a few iridescent bubbles at the bottom of the glass. 'I made it strong.'
There was a strained silence when I almost seemed to hear my own heart beats. 'How—how—do you feel, now, darling?' I asked at last.
'Dreadful, thank you, Mama, dear.'
'That isn't enough,' I cried in anguish. 'Can't you——?'
'No, I can't, Mama.'
'This is terrible,' I broke out, fast becoming hysterical. 'What is to be done! Can nothing save her?'
'I suppose the doctor will bring along a stomach pump,' said Henry, trying to soothe me.
'Oh, must he?' moaned The Kid (ignored).
'Get 'er to put 'er finger down 'er throat,' suggested Elizabeth brightly; 'that'll work it.'
It was the last straw. The Kid, though still dutiful, was utterly outraged. 'No, no, I won't,' she cried in open rebellion.
She looked unhappy. The soap and water had evidently met the allied forces of ipecac. and salt, and a fierce battle was, no doubt, in progress in her interior at the moment. 'I won't,' she repeated desperately.
'Do try, darling,' implored Henry, 'and I'll give you a whole shilling.'
'No, no, no. I don't want any shillings.' Judging by her expression the soap must have commenced an encircling movement, and the salt and ipecac. were hurrying up reserves. 'I won't put my finger down my throat.'
'What are we to do?' I said, wringing my hands. 'I never knew her to be so obstinate. Why, oh, why doesn't the doctor come? The child is beginning to look so strange already.'
'Well, wot I'd do if I was you,' suggested Elizabeth, 'is to begin the doses all over again——'
'Good,' said Henry. 'Firstly the ipecac.——'
'Oh, must I?' interrupted The Kid.
To my intense relief Marion dashed in at that moment. 'Have you given her an emetic?' she demanded breathlessly.
Elizabeth, Henry and I gathered round her with the necessary information.
'She has had several. Ipecac.——'
'Salt and water——'
'Warm soap and water——'
'And,' I concluded, now in tears, 'she won't be sick—simply won't!'
'I do want to, auntie,' explained The Kid, her child's sense of justice receiving mortal blows, 'but I can't be——'
Marion stood and gazed at her in awe. 'It's wonderful,' she murmured, 'amazing! I think, perhaps, The Lancet would be interested in a letter on the subject.'
'But what did the doctor say?' broke in Henry. 'Is he coming?'
'No,' said Marion, 'he——'
'Why not?' I asked feverishly.
'Because he said it was all right directly he tasted the contents of the bottle. But to make quite sure he 'phoned to your chemist, who, it appears, put your name on the bottle instead of The Kid's. He was awfully sorry and apologetic.'
'Sorry!' I echoed, 'apologetic! Why, the man's a monster. To think of all I've suffered through his carelessness.' I sank down on a chair. 'I'm quite overwrought.'
'There's no harm done, thank goodness,' said Marion.
'"All's well that ends well,"' quoted Henry.
'I'm fair relieved to get that load orf my mind,' supplemented Elizabeth.
'Mama, dear,' put in The Kid, glad, no doubt, that at last she was able to please, 'I think that now I really can be——'
'It doesn't matter now, darling,' I explained. 'You'd better lie perfectly still and let it pass off.'
'Must I, Mama?'
We all moved towards the door. The relief from the strain was apparent in our joyous faces and lightened mien. We sang out 'Good-night' to The Kid, and went out laughing and chatting. Half-way down the stairs we heard her calling.
'What is it?' we all asked in chorus.
'Please may I have my custard now?'
Being an extract from the diary of Miss Marion Warrington: Thursday. A most remarkable and perplexing thing has happened. Never, for a moment, could I have dreamed of such an improbable and embarrassing occurrence.
It was Elizabeth who first brought it to my notice, and I can only wish she had never made that strange discovery which is causing me so much uneasiness. I was spending the day with Netta, and had gone into the kitchen for a moment, when Elizabeth asked if she might speak to me in confidence. This rather surprised me, because she does not, as a rule, show such diffidence about speaking (in confidence or otherwise) to any one.
'Is it anything very important?' I inquired.
She seemed to hesitate and then jerked out, 'Well, miss, it's about that there Mr. Roarings.'
I at once felt rather troubled on Netta's account. Perhaps Elizabeth was on the verge of giving notice as a protest against the extra work involved by having that monstrously untidy man about the place. Why Netta tolerates him with his slovenly habits is beyond my comprehension.
'What has he been doing now?' I asked. 'Surely he hasn't started another invention?' I never before realized what a thoroughly untidy, disordered business inventing could be until I saw him at it.
'Oh, no, miss, nothin' like that, only—only—well, it was what I see when 'e was standin' in the droring-room the other day, an' I was just at the door——'
'I quite understand, Elizabeth. He has burnt a hole in that beautiful pile carpet.'
'No, miss, he——'
'Then he has scorched the rose silk tapestry on the couch!' It is my opinion that he should not be allowed in the drawing-room at all. He isn't safe with a pipe in his mouth or a box of matches in his pocket. Henry ought to take out a special insurance against Mr. Rawlings.
'No, it's nothin' like that, miss. As I was sayin', 'e was standin' in the droring-room. The door was wide open. I was just goin' in to dust an' then I sees that 'e's 'oldin' your photo in 'is 'ands, that big one in the silver frame. 'E was starin' at it wild-like, and a-mutterin' to 'isself. I 'eard 'im say, quite distinct, "Oh, Marryun, Marryun, my beautiful darlin', 'ow I adore you," ses e. "I'm not 'arf mad about you." An' then 'e starts kissin' the photo until I thinks 'e'll crack the glarss of the frame with 'is passion and 'ot breath.'