This novel is a true and humourous knowledge of the heart-relations which exist between a man and the woman he has married. A very kindly and graphic story to which the new interest of an American perspective is added. Arnold Bennett (1867-1931) was an English journalist, novelist, and writer. After working as a rent collector and solicitor's clerk, Bennett won a writing contest which convinced him to become a journalist. He later turned to the writing of novels, including his most famous Clayhanger and Anna of the five towns.
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"And yet," Edward Henry Machin reflected as at six minutes to six he approached his own dwelling at the top of Bleakridge, "and yet--I don't feel so jolly after all!"
The first two words of this disturbing meditation had reference to the fact that, by telephoning twice to his stockbrokers at Manchester, he had just made the sum of three hundred and forty-one pounds in a purely speculative transaction concerning Rubber shares. (It was in the autumn of the great gambling year, 1910). He had simply opened his lucky and wise mouth at the proper moment, and the money, like ripe golden fruit, had fallen into it, a gift from benign Heaven, surely a cause for happiness! And yet--he did not feel so jolly! He was surprised, he was even a little hurt, to discover by introspection that monetary gain was not necessarily accompanied by felicity. Nevertheless, this very successful man of the world of the Five Towns, having been born on the 27th of May, 1867, had reached the age of forty-three and a half years.
"I must be getting older," he reflected.
He was right. He was still young, as every man of forty-three will agree, but he was getting older. A few years ago a windfall of Three hundred and forty-one pounds would not have been followed by morbid self-analysis; it would have been followed by unreasoning instinctive elation, which elation would have endured at least twelve hours.
As he disappeared within the reddish garden wall which sheltered his abode from the publicity of Trafalgar Road, he half hoped to see Nellie waiting for him on the famous marble step of the porch, for the woman had long, long since invented a way of scouting for his advent from the small window in the bathroom. But there was nobody on the marble step. His melancholy increased. At the midday meal he had complained of neuralgia, and hence this was an evening upon which he might fairly have expected to see sympathy charmingly attired on the porch. It is true that the neuralgia had completely gone. "Still," he said to himself with justifiable sardonic gloom, "how does she know my neuralgia's gone? She doesn't know."
Having opened the front door with the thinnest, neatest latchkey in the Five Towns, he entered his home and stumbled slightly over a brush that was lying against the sunk door-mat. He gazed at that brush with resentment. It was a dilapidated handbrush. The offensive object would have been out of place, at nightfall, in the lobby of any house. But in the lobby of his house--the house which he had planned a dozen years earlier to the special end of minimising domestic labour, and which he had always kept up to date with the latest devices--in his lobby the spectacle of a vile outworn hand-brush at tea-time amounted to a scandal. Less than a fortnight previously he had purchased and presented to his wife a marvellous electric vacuum-cleaner, surpassing all former vacuum-cleaners. You simply attached this machine by a cord to the wall, like a dog, and waved it in mysterious passes over the floor, like a fan, and the house was clean! He was as proud of this machine as though he had invented it, instead of having merely bought it; every day he enquired about its feats, expecting enthusiastic replies as a sort of reward for his own keenness; and be it said that he had had enthusiastic replies.
And now this obscene hand-brush!
As he carefully removed his hat and his beautiful new Melton overcoat (which had the colour and the soft smoothness of a damson), he animadverted upon the astounding negligence of women. There were Nellie, his wife; his mother, the nurse, the cook, the maid--five of them; and in his mind they had all plotted together--a conspiracy of carelessness--to leave the inexcusable tool in his lobby for him to stumble over. What was the use of accidentally procuring three hundred and forty-one pounds?
Still no sign of Nellie, though he purposely made a noisy rattle with his ebon walking-stick. Then the maid burst out of the kitchen with a tray and the principal utensils for high tea thereon. She had a guilty air. The household was evidently late. Two steps at a time he rushed up-stairs to the bathroom, so as to be waiting in the dining-room at six precisely, in order, if possible, to shame the household and fill it with remorse and unpleasantness. Yet, ordinarily, he was not a very prompt man, nor did he delight in giving pain. On the contrary, he was apt to be casual, blithe, and agreeable.
The bathroom was his peculiar domain, which he was always modernising, and where his talent for the ingenious organisation of comfort and his utter indifference to esthetic beauty had the fullest scope. By universal consent admitted to be the finest bathroom in the Five Towns, it typified the whole house. He was disappointed on this occasion to see no untidy trace in it of the children's ablution; some transgression of the supreme domestic law that the bathroom must always be free and immaculate when Father wanted it would have suited his gathering humour. As he washed his hands and cleansed his well-trimmed nails with a nail-brush that had cost five shillings and sixpence, he glanced at himself in the mirror which he was splashing. A stoutish, broad-shouldered, fair, chubby man with a short bright beard and plenteous bright hair! His necktie pleased him; the elegance of his turned-back wristbands pleased him; and he liked the rich down on his forearms.
He could not believe that he looked forty-three and a half. And yet he had recently had an idea of shaving off his beard, partly to defy time, but partly, also (I must admit), because a friend had suggested to him, wildly perhaps, that if he dispensed with a beard his hair might grow more sturdily. Yes, there was one weak spot in the middle of the top of his head where the crop had of late disconcertingly thinned. The hair-dresser had informed him that the symptom would vanish under electric massage, and that, if he doubted the bonafides of hair-dressers, any doctor would testify to the value of electric massage. But now Edward Henry Machin, strangely discouraged, inexplicably robbed of the zest of existence, decided that it was not worth while to shave off his beard. Nothing was worth while. If he was forty-three and a half, he was forty-three and a half. To become bald was the common lot. Moreover, beardless, he would need the service of a barber every day. And he was absolutely persuaded that not a barber worth the name could be found in the Five Towns. He actually went to Manchester, thirty-six miles, to get his hair cut. The operation never cost him less than a sovereign and half a day's time. And he honestly deemed himself to be a fellow of simple tastes! Such is the effect of the canker of luxury. Happily he could afford these simple tastes; for, although not rich in the modern significance of the term, he paid income tax on some five thousand pounds a year, without quite convincing the Surveyor of Taxes that he was an honest man.
He brushed the thick hair over the weak spot, he turned down his wristbands, he brushed the collar of his jacket, and lastly his beard; and he put on his jacket--with a certain care, for he was very neat. And then, reflectively twisting his moustache to military points, he spied through the smaller window to see whether the new high hoarding of the football-ground really did prevent a serious observer from descrying wayfarers as they breasted the hill from Hanbridge. It did not. Then he spied through the larger window upon the yard, to see whether the wall of the new rooms which he had lately added to his house showed any further trace of damp, and whether the new chauffeur was washing the new motor-car with all his heart. The wall showed no further trace of damp, and the new chauffeur's bent back seemed to symbolise an extreme conscientiousness.
Then the clock on the landing struck six, and he hurried off to put the household to open shame.
Nellie came into the dining-room two minutes after her husband. As Edward Henry had laboriously counted these two minutes almost second by second on the dining-room clock, he was very tired of waiting. His secret annoyance was increased by the fact that Nellie took off her white apron in the doorway and flung it hurriedly on to the table-tray which, during the progress of meals, was established outside the dining-room door. He did not actually witness this operation of undressing, because Nellie was screened by the half-closed door; but he was entirely aware of it. He disliked it, and he had always disliked it. When Nellie was at work, either as a mother or as the owner of certain fine silver ornaments, he rather enjoyed the wonderful white apron, for it suited her temperament; but as the head of a household with six thousand pounds a year at its disposal, he objected to any hint of the thing at meals. And to-night he objected to it altogether. Who could guess from the homeliness of their family life that he was in a position to spend a hundred pounds a week and still have enough income left over to pay the salary of a town clerk or so? Nobody could guess; and he felt that people ought to be able to guess. When he was young he would have esteemed an income of six thousand pounds a year as necessarily implicating feudal state, valets, castles, yachts, family solicitors, racing-stables, county society, dinner-calls, and a drawling London accent. Why should his wife wear an apron at all? But the sad truth was that neither his wife nor his mother everlookedrich, nor even endeavoured to look rich. His mother would carry an eighty-pound sealskin as though she had picked it up at a jumble sale, and his wife put such simplicity into the wearing of a hundred-and-eighty pound diamond ring that its expensiveness was generally quite wasted.
And yet, while the logical male in him scathingly condemned this feminine defect of character, his private soul was glad of it, for he well knew that he would have been considerably irked by the complexities and grandeurs of high life. But never would he have admitted this.
Nellie's face as she sat down was not limpid. He understood naught of it. More than twenty years had passed since they had first met--he and a wistful little creature--at a historic town-hall dance. He could still see the wistful little creature in those placid and pure features, in that buxom body; but now there was a formidable, capable, and experienced woman there too. Impossible to credit that the wistful little creature was thirty-seven! But she was. Indeed, it was very doubtful if she would ever see thirty-eight again. Once he had had the most romantic feelings about her. He could recall the slim flexibility of her waist, the timorous, melting invitation of her eyes. And now--such was human existence!
She sat up erect on her chair. She did not apologise for being late. She made no inquiry as to his neuralgia. On the other hand, she was not cross. She was just neutral, polite, cheerful, and apparently conscious of perfection. He strongly desired to inform her of the exact time of day, but his lips would not articulate the words.
"Maud," she said with divine calm to the maid who bore in the baked York ham under its silver canopy, "you haven't taken away that brush that's in the passage." Another illustration of Nellie's inability to live up to six thousand pounds a year; she would always refer to the hall as the "passage."
"Please'm, I did, m'm," replied Maud, now as conscious of perfection as her mistress. "He must have took it back again."
"Who's 'he'?" demanded the master.
"Carlo, sir." Upon which triumph Maud retired.
Edward Henry was dashed. Nevertheless, he quickly recovered his presence of mind, and sought about for a justification of his previous verdict upon the negligence of five women.
"It would have been easy enough to put the brush where the dog couldn't get at it," he said. But he said this strictly to himself. He could not say it aloud. Nor could he say aloud the words "neuralgia," "three hundred and forty-one pounds," any more than he could say "late."
That he was in a peculiar mental condition is proved by the fact that he did not remark the absence of his mother until he was putting her share of baked ham on to a plate.
He thought, "This is a bit thick, this is!" meaning the extreme lateness of his mother for the meal. But his only audible remark was a somewhat impatient banging down of the hot plate in front of his mother's empty chair.
In answer to this banging, Nellie quietly began:
(He knew instantly, then, that Nellie was disturbed about something or other. Mother-in-law and daughter-in-law lived together under one roof in perfect amity. Nay more, they often formed powerful and unscrupulous leagues against him. But whenever Nellie was disturbed, by no matter what, she would say "your mother" instead of merely "Mother." It was an extraordinary subtle, silly, and effective way of putting him in the wrong.)
"Your mother is staying up-stairs with Robert."
Robert was the eldest child, aged eight.
"Oh!" breathed Edward Henry. He might have enquired what the nurse was for; he might have enquired how his mother meant to get her tea; but he refrained, adding simply, "What's up now?"
And in retort to his wife's "your," he laid a faint emphasis on the word "now," to imply that those women were always inventing some fresh imaginary woe for the children.
"Carlo's bitten him--in the calf," said Nellie, tightening her lips.
This, at any rate, was not imaginary.
"The kid was teasing him as usual, I suppose?" he suggested.
"That I don't know," said Nellie. "But I know we must get rid of that dog."
"Of course we must," Nellie insisted, with an inadvertent heat which she immediately cooled.
"I mean the bite."
"Well--it's a bite right enough."
"And you're thinking of hydrophobia, death amid horrible agony, and so on."
"No, I'm not," she said stoutly, trying to smile.
But he knew she was. And he knew also that the bite was a trifle. If it had been a good bite, she would have made it enormous; she would have hinted that the dog had left a chasm in the boy's flesh.
"Yes, you are," he continued to twit her, encouraged by her attempt at a smile.
However, the smile expired.
"I suppose you won't deny that Carlo's teeth may have been dirty? He's always nosing in some filth or other," she said challengingly, in a measured tone of sagacity. "And there may be blood-poisoning."
"Blood-fiddlesticks!" exclaimed Edward Henry.
Such a nonsensical and infantile rejoinder deserved no answer, and it received none. Shortly afterwards Maud entered and whispered that Nellie was wanted up-stairs. As soon as his wife had gone, Edward Henry rang the bell.
"Maud," he said, "bring me theSignalout of my left-hand overcoat-pocket."
And he defiantly finished his meal at leisure, with the news of the day propped up against the flower-pot, which he had set before him instead of the dish of ham.
Later, catching through the open door fragments of a conversation on the stairs which indicated that his mother was at last coming down for tea, he sped like a threatened delinquent into the drawing-room. He had no wish to encounter his mother, though that woman usually said little.
The drawing-room, after the bathroom, was Edward Henry's favourite district in the home. Since he could not spend the whole of his time in the bathroom,--and he could not!--he wisely gave a special care to the drawing-room, and he loved it as one always loves that upon which one has bestowed benefits. He was proud of the drawing-room, and he had the right to be. The principal object in it, at night, was the electric chandelier, which would have been adequate for a lighthouse. Edward Henry's eyes were not what they used to be; and the minor advertisements in theSignal, which constituted his sole evening perusals, often lacked legibility. Edward Henry sincerely believed in light and heat; he was almost the only person in the Five Towns who did. In the Five Towns people have fires in their grates--not to warm the room, but to make the room bright. Seemingly they use their pride to keep themselves warm. At any rate, whenever Edward Henry talked to them of radiators, they would sternly reply that a radiator did not and could not brighten a room. Edward Henry had made the great discovery that an efficient chandelier will brighten a room better even than a fire; and he had gilded his radiator. The notion of gilding the radiator was not his own; he had seen a gilded radiator in the newest hotel at Birmingham, and had rejoiced as some peculiar souls rejoice when they meet a fine line in a new poem. (In concession to popular prejudice, Edward Henry had fire-grates in his house, and fires therein during exceptionally frosty weather; but this did not save him from being regarded in the Five Towns as in some ways a peculiar soul.) The effulgent source of dark heat was scientifically situated in front of the window, and on ordinarily cold evenings Edward Henry and his wife and mother, and an acquaintance if one happened to come in, would gather round the radiator and play bridge or dummy whist.
The other phenomena of the drawing-room which particularly interested Edward Henry were the Turkey carpet, the four vast easy chairs, the sofa, the imposing cigar-cabinet, and the mechanical piano-player. At one brief period he had hovered a good deal about the revolving bookcase containing the encyclopedia, to which his collection of books was limited; but the frail passion for literature had not survived a struggle with the seductions of the mechanical piano-player.
The walls of the room never drew his notice. He had chosen, some years before, a patent washable kind of wall-paper (which could be wiped over with a damp cloth), and he had also chosen the pattern of the paper, but it is a fact that he could spend hours in any room without even seeing the pattern of its paper. In the same way, his wife's cushions and little draperies and bows were invisible to him, though he had searched for and duly obtained the perfect quality of swansdown which filled the cushions.
The one ornament of the walls which attracted him was a large and splendidly framed oil-painting of a ruined castle in the midst of a sombre forest through which cows were strolling. In the tower of the castle was a clock, and this clock was a realistic timepiece whose fingers moved and told the hour. Two of the oriel windows of the castle were realistic holes in its masonry; through one of them you could put a key to wind up the clock, and through the other you could put a key to wind up a secret musical box which played sixteen different tunes. He had bought this handsome relic of the Victorian era (not less artistic, despite your scorn, than many devices for satisfying the higher instincts of the present day) at an auction sale in the Strand, London. But it, too, had been supplanted in his esteem by the mechanical piano-player.
He now selected an example of the most expensive cigar in the cigar-cabinet, and lighted it as only a connoisseur can light a cigar--lovingly; he blew out the match lingeringly, with regret, and dropped it and the cigar's red collar with care into a large copper bowl on the centre table, instead of flinging it against the Japanese umbrella in the fireplace. (A grave disadvantage of radiators is that you cannot throw odds and ends into them.) He chose the most expensive cigar because he wanted comfort and peace. The ham was not digesting very well.
Then he sat down and applied himself to the property advertisements in theSignal, a form of sensational serial which usually enthralled him--but not to-night. He allowed the paper to lapse on to the floor, and then rose impatiently, rearranged the thick dark blue curtains behind the radiator, and finally yielded to the silent call of the mechanical piano-player. He quite knew that to dally with the piano-player while smoking a high-class cigar was to insult the cigar; but he did not care. He tilted the cigar upwards from an extreme corner of his mouth, and through the celestial smoke gazed at the titles of the new music-rolls which had been delivered that day, and which were ranged on the top of the piano itself.
And while he did so he was thinking:
"Why in thunder didn't the little thing come and tell me at once about that kid and his dog-bite? I wonder why she didn't! She seemed only to mention it by accident. I wonder why she didn't bounce into the bathroom and tell me at once?"
But it was untrue that he sought vainly for an answer to this riddle. He was aware of the answer. He even kept saying over the answer to himself:
"She's made up her mind I've been teasing her a bit too much lately about those kids and their precious illnesses. And she's doing the dignified. That's what she's doing! She's doing the dignified!"
Of course, instantly after his tea he ought to have gone up-stairs to inspect the wounded victim of dogs. The victim was his own child, and its mother was his wife. He knew that he ought to have gone up-stairs long since. He knew he ought now to go, and the sooner the better. But somehow he could not go; he could not bring himself to go. In the minor and major crises of married life there are not two partners but four; each partner has a dual personality; each partner is indeed two different persons, and one of these fights against the other, with the common result of a fatal inaction.
The wickeder of the opposing persons in Edward Henry, getting the upper hand of the more virtuous, sniggered. "Dirty teeth, indeed! Blood-poisoning, indeed! Why not rabies, while she's about it? I guarantee she's dreaming of coffins and mourning coaches already!"
Scanning nonchalantly the titles of the music-rolls, he suddenly saw: "Funeral March. Chopin."
"She shall have it," he said, affixing the roll to the mechanism. And added, "Whatever it is!"
For he was not acquainted with the Funeral March from Chopin's Pianoforte Sonata. His musical education had in truth begun only a year earlier, with the advertisement of the "Pianisto" mechanical player. He was a judge of advertisements, and the "Pianisto" literature pleased him in a high degree. He justifiably reckoned that he could distinguish between honest and dishonest advertising. He made a deep study of the question of mechanical players, and deliberately came to the conclusion that the "Pianisto" was the best. It was also the most costly; but one of the conveniences of having six thousand pounds a year is that you need not deny yourself the best mechanical player because it happens to be the most costly. He bought a "Pianisto," and incidentally he bought a superb grand piano, and exiled the old cottage piano to the nursery.
The "Pianisto" was the best, partly because, like the vacuum-cleaner, it could be operated by electricity, and partly because, by means of certain curved lines on the unrolling paper, and of certain gun-metal levers and clutches, it enabled the operator to put his secret ardent soul into the music. Assuredly it had given Edward Henry a taste for music. The whole world of musical compositions was his to conquer, and he conquered it at the rate of about two great masters a month. From Handel to Richard Strauss, even from Palestrina to Debussy, the achievements of genius lay at his mercy. He criticised them with a freedom that was entirely unprejudiced by tradition. Beethoven was no more to him than Arthur Sullivan; indeed, was rather less. The works of his choice were the "Tannhäuser" overture, a potpourri of Verdi's "Aïda," Chopin's Study in Thirds--which ravished him--and a selection from "The Merry Widow," which also ravished him. So that on the whole it may be said that he had a very good natural taste.
He at once liked Chopin's Funeral March. He entered profoundly into the spirit of it. With the gun-metal levers he produced in a marvellous fashion the long tragic roll of the drums, and by the manipulation of a clutch he distilled into the chant at the graveside a melancholy sweetness that rent the heart. The later crescendi were overwhelming. And as he played there, with the bright blaze of the chandelier on his fair hair and beard, and the blue cigar-smoke in his nostrils, and the effluence of the gilded radiator behind him, and the intimacy of the drawn window curtains and the closed and curtained door folding him in from the world, and the agony of the music grieving his artistic soul to the core--as he played there, he grew gradually happier and happier, and the zest of existence seemed to return. It was not only that he felt the elemental, unfathomable satisfaction of a male who is sheltered in solitude from a pack of women that have got on his nerves; there was also the more piquant assurance that he was behaving in a very sprightly manner. How long was it since he had accomplished anything worthy of his ancient reputation as a "card," as "the" card of the Five Towns? He could not say; but now he knew that he was being a card again. The whole town would smile and forgive and admire if it learnt that--
Nellie invaded the room. She had resumed the affray.
"Denry!" she reproached him, in an uncontrolled voice. "I'm ashamed of you! I really am!" She was no longer doing the dignified. The mask was off, and the unmistakable lineaments of the outraged mother appeared. That she should address him as "Denry" proved the intensity of her agitation. Years ago, when he had been made an alderman, his wife and his mother had decided that "Denry" was no longer a suitable name for him, and had abandoned it in favour of "Edward Henry."
He ceased playing.
"Why?" he protested, with a ridiculous air of innocence. "I'm only playing Chopin. Can't I play Chopin?"
He was rather surprised and impressed that she had recognised the piece for what it was. But of course she did, as a fact, know something about music, he remembered, though she never touched the "Pianisto."
"I think it's a pity you can't choose some other evening for your funeral marches!" she exclaimed.
"If that's it," said Edward Henry like lightning, "why did you stick me out you weren't afraid of hydrophobia?"
"I'll thank you to come up-stairs," she replied with warmth.
"Oh, all right, my dear! All right!" he cooed.
And they went up-stairs in a rather solemn procession.
Nellie led the way to the chamber known as "Maisie's room," where the youngest of the Machins was wont to sleep in charge of the nurse, who, under the supervision of the mother of all three, had dominion over Robert, Ralph, and their little sister. The first thing that Edward Henry noticed was the screen which shut off one of the beds. The unfurling of the four-fold screen was always a sure sign that Nellie was taking an infantile illness seriously. It was an indication to Edward Henry of the importance of the dog-bite in Nellie's esteem. When all the chicks of the brood happened to be simultaneously sound, the screen reposed, inconspicuous, at an angle against a wall behind the door; but when pestilence was abroad, the screen travelled from one room to another in the wake of it, and, spreading wide, took part in the battle of life and death.
In an angle of the screen, on the side of it away from the bed and near the fire (in times of stress Nellie would not rely on radiators), sat old Mrs. Machin, knitting. She was a thin, bony woman of sixty-nine years, and as hard and imperishable as teak. So far as her son knew, she had only had two illnesses in her life. The first was an attack of influenza, and the second was an attack of acute rheumatism, which had incapacitated her for several weeks. Edward Henry and Nellie had taken advantage of her helplessness, then, to force her to give up her barbaric cottage in Brougham Street and share permanently the splendid comfort of their home. She existed in their home like a philosophic prisoner of war at the court of conquerors, behaving faultlessly, behaving magnanimously in the melancholy grandeur of her fall, but never renouncing her soul's secret independence, nor permitting herself to forget that she was on foreign ground. When Edward Henry looked at those yellow and seasoned fingers which, by hard manual labour, had kept herself and him in the young days of his humble obscurity, and which, during sixty years had not been idle for more than six weeks in all, he grew almost apologetic for his wealth. They reminded him of the day when his total resources were five pounds, won in a wager, and of the day when he drove proudly about behind a mule collecting other people's rents, and of the glittering day when he burst in on her from Llandudno with over a thousand gold sovereigns in a hat-box,--product of his first great picturesque coup,--imagining himself to be an English Jay Gould. She had not blenched even then. She had not blenched since. And she never would blench. In spite of his gorgeous position and his unique reputation, in spite of her well-concealed but notorious pride in him, he still went in fear of that ageless woman, whose undaunted eye always told him that he was still the lad Denry, and her inferior in moral force. The curve of her thin lips seemed ever to be warning him that with her pretensions were quite useless, and that she saw through him, and through him to the innermost grottoes of his poor human depravity.
He caught her eye guiltily.
"Behold the alderman!" she murmured with grimness.
That was all. But the three words took thirty years off his back, snatched the half-crown cigar out of his hand, and reduced him again to the raw, hungry boy of Brougham Street. And he knew that he had sinned gravely in not coming up-stairs very much earlier.
"Is that you, Father?" called the high voice of Robert from the back of the screen.
He had to admit to his son that it was he.
The infant lay on his back in Maisie's bed, while his mother sat lightly on the edge of nurse's bed near-by.
"Well, you're a nice chap!" said Edward Henry, avoiding Nellie's glance, but trying to face his son as one innocent man may face another, and not perfectly succeeding. He never could feel like a real father somehow.
"My temperature's above normal," announced Robert proudly, and then added with regret, "but not much!"
There was the clinical thermometer--instrument which Edward Henry despised and detested as being an inciter of illnesses--in a glass of water on the table between the two beds.
"Father!" Robert began again.
"Well, Robert?" said Edward Henry cheerfully.
He was glad that the child was in one of his rare loquacious moods, because the chatter not only proved that the dog had done no serious damage,--it also eased the silent strain between himself and Nellie.
"Why did you play the Funeral March, Father?" asked Robert; and the question fell into the tranquillity of the room rather like a bomb that had not quite decided whether or not to burst.
For the second time that evening Edward Henry was dashed.
"Have you been meddling with my music-rolls?"
"No, Father. I only read the labels."
This child simply read everything.
"How did you know I was playing a funeral march?" Edward Henry demanded.
"Oh,Ididn't tell him!" Nellie put in, excusing herself before she was accused. She smiled benignly, as an angel woman, capable of forgiving all. But there were moments when Edward Henry hated moral superiority and Christian meekness in a wife. Moreover, Nellie somewhat spoiled her own effect by adding with an artificial continuation of the smile, "You needn't look atme!"
Edward Henry considered the remark otiose. Though he had indeed ventured to look at her, he had not looked at her in the manner which she implied.
"It made a noise like funerals and things," Robert explained.
"Well, it seems to me,youhave been playing a funeral march," said Edward Henry to the child.
He thought this rather funny, rather worthy of himself, but the child answered with ruthless gravity and a touch of disdain, for he was a disdainful child, without bowels:
"I don't know what you mean, Father." The curve of his lips (he had his grandmother's lips) appeared to say, "I wish you wouldn't try to be silly, Father." However, youth forgets very quickly, and the next instant Robert was beginning once more, "Father!"
By mutual agreement of the parents, the child was never addressed as "Bob" or "Bobby," or by any other diminutive. In their practical opinion a child's name was his name, and ought not to be mauled or dismembered on the pretext of fondness. Similarly, the child had not been baptised after his father, or after any male member of either the Machin or the Cotterill family. Why should family names be perpetuated merely because they were family names? A natural human reaction, this, against the excessive sentimentalism of the Victorian era!
"What does 'stamped out' mean?" Robert enquired.
Now Robert, among other activities, busied himself in the collection of postage-stamps, and in consequence his father's mind, under the impulse of the question, ran immediately to postage-stamps.
"Stamped out?" said Edward Henry, with the air of omniscience that a father is bound to assume. "Postage-stamps are stamped-out--by a machine--you see."
Robert's scorn of this explanation was manifest.
"Well," Edward Henry, piqued, made another attempt, "you stamp a fire out with your feet." And he stamped illustratively on the floor. After all, the child was only eight.
"I knew all that before," said Robert coldly. "You don't understand."
"What makes you ask, dear? Let us show Father your leg." Nellie's voice was soothing.
"Yes," Robert murmured, staring reflectively at the ceiling. "That's it. It says in the encyclopedia that hydrophobia is stamped out in this country--by Mr. Long's muzzling order. Who is Mr. Long?"
A second bomb had fallen on exactly the same spot as the first, and the two exploded simultaneously. And the explosion was none the less terrible because it was silent and invisible. The tidy domestic chamber was strewn in a moment with an awful mass of wounded susceptibilities. Beyond the screen thenick-nickof grandmother's steel needles stopped and started again. It was characteristic of her temperament that she should recover before the younger generations could recover. Edward Henry, as befitted his sex, regained his nerve a little earlier than Nellie.
"I told you never to touch my encyclopedia," said he sternly. Robert had twice been caught on his stomach on the floor with a vast volume open under his chin, and his studies had been traced by vile thumb-marks.
"I know," said Robert.
Whenever anybody gave that child a piece of unsolicited information, he almost invariably replied, "I know."
"But hydrophobia!" cried Nellie. "How did you know about hydrophobia?"
"We had it in spellings last week," Robert explained.
"The deuce you did!" muttered Edward Henry.
The one bright fact of the many-sided and gloomy crisis was the very obvious truth that Robert was the most extraordinary child that ever lived.
"But when on earth did you get at the encyclopedia, Robert?" his mother exclaimed, completely at a loss.
"It was before you came in from Hillport," the wondrous infant answered. "After my leg had stopped hurting me a bit."
"But when I came in Nurse said it had only just happened!"
"Shows how muchsheknew!" said Robert, with contempt.
"Does your leg hurt you now?" Edward Henry enquired.
"A bit. That's why I can't go to sleep, of course."
"Well, let's have a look at it." Edward Henry attempted jollity.
"Mother's wrapped it all up in boracic wool."
The bed-clothes were drawn down and the leg gradually revealed. And the sight of the little soft leg, so fragile and defenceless, really did touch Edward Henry. It made him feel more like an authentic father than he had felt for a long time. And the sight of the red wound hurt him. Still, it was a beautifully clean wound, and it was not a large wound.
"It's a clean wound," he observed judiciously. In spite of himself, he could not keep a certain flippant harsh quality out of his tone.
"Well, I've naturally washed it with carbolic," Nellie returned sharply.
He illogically resented this sharpness.
"Of course he was bitten through his stocking?"
"Of course," said Nellie, re-enveloping the wound hastily, as though Edward Henry was not worthy to regard it.
"Well, then, by the time they got through the stocking, the animal's teeth couldn't be dirty. Every one knows that."
Nellie shut her lips.
"Were you teasing Carlo?" Edward Henry demanded curtly of his son.
"I don't know."
Whenever anybody asked that child for a piece of information, he almost invariably replied, "I don't know."
"How, you don't know? You must know whether you were teasing the dog or not!" Edward Henry was nettled.
The renewed spectacle of his own wound had predisposed Robert to feel a great and tearful sympathy for himself. His mouth now began to take strange shapes and to increase magically in area, and beads appeared in the corners of his large eyes.
"I--I was only measuring his tail by his hind leg," he blubbered, and then sobbed.
Edward Henry did his best to save his dignity.
"Come, come!" he reasoned, less menacingly. "Boys who can read enyclopedias mustn't be cry-babies. You'd no business measuring Carlo's tail by his hind leg. You ought to remember that that dog's older than you." And this remark, too, he thought rather funny, but apparently he was alone in his opinion.
Then he felt something against his calf. And it was Carlo's nose. Carlo was a large, very shaggy and unkempt Northern terrier, but owing to vagueness of his principal points, due doubtless to a vagueness in his immediate ancestry, it was impossible to decide whether he had come from the north or the south side of the Tweed. This aging friend of Edward Henry's, surmising that something unusual was afoot in his house, and having entirely forgotten the trifling episode of the bite, had unobtrusively come to make enquiries.
"Poor old boy!" said Edward Henry, stooping to pat the dog. "Did they try to measure his tail with his hind leg?"
The gesture was partly instinctive, for he loved Carlo; but it also had its origin in sheer nervousness, in sheer ignorance of what was the best thing to do. However, he was at once aware that he had done the worst thing. Had not Nellie announced that the dog must be got rid of? And here he was fondly caressing the bloodthirsty dog! With a hysterical movement of the lower part of her leg, Nellie pushed violently against the dog,--she did not kick, but she nearly kicked,--and Carlo, faintly howling a protest, fled.
Edward Henry was hurt. He escaped from between the beds, and from that close, enervating domestic atmosphere where he was misunderstood by women and disdained by infants. He wanted fresh air; he wanted bars, whiskies, billiard-rooms, and the society of masculine men about town. The whole of his own world was against him.
As he passed by his knitting mother, she ignored him and moved not. She had a great gift of holding aloof from conjugal complications.
On the landing he decided that he would go out at once into the major world. Half-way down the stairs he saw his overcoat on the hall-stand, beckoning to him and offering release.
Then he heard the bedroom door and his wife's footsteps.
He stopped and looked up inimically at her face, which overhung the banisters. It was the face of a woman outraged in her most profound feelings, but amazingly determined to be sweet.
"What do you think of it?"
"What do I think of what? The wound?"
"Why, it's simply nothing. Nothing at all. You know how that kid always heals up quickly. You won't be able to find the wound in a day or two."
"Don't you think it ought to be cauterised at once?"
He moved downwards.
"No, I don't. I've been bitten three times in my life by dogs, and I was never cauterised."
"Well, Idothink it ought to be cauterised." She raised her voice slightly as he retreated from her. "And I shall be glad if you'll call in at Dr. Stirling's and ask him to come round."
He made no reply, but put on his overcoat and his hat, and took his stick. Glancing up the stairs, he saw Nellie was now standing at the head of them, under the electric light there, and watching him. He knew that she thought he was cravenly obeying her command. She could have no idea that before she spoke to him he had already decided to put on his overcoat and hat and take his stick and go forth into the major world. However, that was no affair of his.
He hesitated a second. Then the nurse appeared out of the kitchen with a squalling Maisie in her arms, and ran up-stairs. Why Maisie was squalling, and why she should have been in the kitchen at such an hour instead of in bed, he could not guess; but he could guess that if he remained one second longer in that exasperating minor world he would begin to smash furniture, and so he quitted it.
It was raining slightly, but he dared not return to the house for his umbrella. In the haze and wet of the shivering October night, the clock of Bleakridge Church glowed like a fiery disk suspended in the sky; and, mysteriously hanging there, without visible means of support, it seemed to him somehow to symbolise the enigma of the universe and intensify his inward gloom. Never before had he had such feelings to such a degree. It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that never before had the enigma of the universe occurred to him. The side gates clicked as he stood hesitant under the shelter of the wall, and a figure emerged from his domain. It was Bellfield, the new chauffeur, going across to his home in the little square in front of the church. Bellfield touched his cap with an eager and willing hand, as new chauffeurs will.
"Want the car, sir? Setting in for a wet night!"
It was a lie. He did want the car. He wanted the car so that he might ride right away into a new and more interesting world, or at any rate into Hanbridge, centre of the pleasures, the wickedness, and the commerce of the Five Towns. But he dared not have the car. He dared not have his own car. He must slip off, noiseless and unassuming. Even to go to Dr. Stirling's he dared not have the car. Besides, he could have walked down the hill to Dr. Stirling's in three minutes. Not that he had the least intention of going to Dr. Stirling's. No! His wife imagined that he was going; but she was mistaken. Within an hour, when Dr. Stirling had failed to arrive, she would doubtless telephone, and get her Dr. Stirling. Not, however, with Edward Henry's assistance!
He reviewed his conduct throughout the evening. In what particular had it been sinful? In no particular. True, the accident to the boy was a misfortune, but had he not borne that misfortune lightly, minimised it, and endeavoured to teach others to bear it lightly? His blithe humour ought surely to have been an example to Nellie! And as for the episode of the funeral march on the "Pianisto," really, really, the tiresome little thing ought to have better appreciated his whimsical drollery!
But Nellie was altered; he was altered; everything was altered. He remembered the ecstasy of their excursion to Switzerland. He remembered the rapture with which, on their honeymoon, he had clasped a new opal bracelet on her exciting arm. He could not possibly have such sensations now. What was the meaning of life? Was life worth living? The fact was, he was growing old. Useless to pretend to himself that it was not so. Both he and she were growing old. Only, she seemed to be placidly content, and he was not content. And more and more the domestic atmosphere and the atmosphere of the district fretted and even annoyed him. To-night's affair was not unique, but it was a culmination. He gazed pessimistically north and south along the slimy expanse of Trafalgar Road, which sank northwards in the direction of Dr. Stirling's, and southwards in the direction of joyous Hanbridge. He loathed and despised Trafalgar Road. What was the use of making three hundred and forty-one pounds by a shrewd speculation? None. He could not employ three hundred and forty-one pounds to increase his happiness. Money had become futile for him. Astounding thought! He desired no more of it. He had a considerable income from investments, and also at least four thousand a year from the Five Towns Universal Thrift Club, that wonderful but unpretentious organisation which now embraced every corner of the Five Towns; that gorgeous invention for profitably taking care of the pennies of the working classes; that excellent device, his own, for selling the working classes every kind of goods at credit prices after having received part of the money in advance!
"I want a change!" he said to himself, and threw away his cigar.
After all, the bitterest thought in his heart was perhaps that on that evening he had tried to be a "card," and, for the first time in his brilliant career as a "card," had failed. He, Henry Machin, who had been the youngest mayor of Bursley years and years ago; he, the recognised amuser of the Five Towns; he, one of the greatest "characters" that the Five Towns had ever produced--he had failed of an effect!
He slipped out on to the pavement, and saw, under the gas-lamp, on the new hoarding of the football-ground, a poster intimating that during that particular week there was a gigantic attraction at the Empire Music Hall at Hanbridge. According to the posters, there was a gigantic attraction every week at the Empire, but Edward Henry happened to know that this week the attraction was indeed somewhat out of the common. And to-night was Friday, the fashionable night for the bloods and the modishness of the Five Towns. He looked at the church clock, and then at his watch. He would be in time for the "second house," which started at nine o'clock. At the same moment an electric tram-car came thundering up out of Bursley. He boarded it, and was saluted by the conductor. Remaining on the platform, he lit a cigarette, and tried to feel cheerful; but he could not conquer his depression.
"Yes," he thought, "what I want is change--and a lot of it too!"
Alderman Machin had to stand at the back, and somewhat towards the side, of that part of the auditorium known as the Grand Circle at the Empire Music Hall, Hanbridge. The attendants at the entrance and in the lounge, where the salutation "Welcome" shone in electricity over a large Cupid-surrounded mirror, had compassionately and yet exultingly told him that there was not a seat left in the house. He had shared their exultation. He had said to himself, full of honest pride in the Five Towns: "This music-hall, admitted by the press to be one of the finest in the provinces, holds over two thousand five hundred people. And yet we can fill it to overflowing twice every night! And only a few years ago there wasn't a decent music-hall in the entire district!"
The word "progress" flitted through his head.
It was not strictly true that the Empire was or could be filled to overflowing twice every night, but it was true that at that particular moment not a seat was unsold; and the aspect of a crowded auditorium is apt to give an optimistic quality to broad generalisations. Alderman Machin began instinctively to calculate the amount of money in the house, and to wonder whether there would be a chance for a second music-hall in the dissipated town of Hanbridge. He also wondered why the idea of a second music-hall in Hanbridge had never occurred to him before.
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