Man and Maid/Rack and thumbscrew
RACK AND THUMBSCREW
Her eyelids were red and swollen, her brown hair, flattened out of its pretty curves, clung closely to her head. Ink stained her hands, and there was even a bluish smear of it on her wrist. A tray with tea-things stood among the litter of manuscript on her table. The tea-pot had only cold tea-leaves in it; the bread and butter was untouched.
She put down the pen, and went to the window. The rose-tint of the sunset was reflected on the bank of mist and smoke beyond the river. Above, where the sky was pale and clear, a star or two twinkled contentedly.
She stamped her foot.
Already the beautiful garments of the evening mist, with veiled lights in the folds of it, was embroidered sparsely with the early litten lamps of impatient workers, and as she gazed, the embroidery was enriched by more and more yellow and white and orange—the string of jewels along the embankment, the face of the church clock.
She turned from the window to the room, and lighted her own lamp, for the room was now deeply dusk. It was a large, low, pleasant room. It had always seemed pleasant to her through the five years in which she had worked, and played, and laughed, and cried there. Now she wondered why she had not always hated it.
The stairs creaked. The knocker spoke. She caught her head in both hands.
“My God!” she said, “this is too much!”
Yet she went to the door.
“Oh—it’s only you,” she said, and, with no other greeting, walked back into the room, and sat down at the table.
The newcomer was left to close the outer door, and to follow at her own pleasure. The newcomer was another girl, younger, prettier, smarter. She turned her head sidewise, like a little bird, and looked at her friend with very bright eyes. Then she looked round the room.
“My dear Jane,” she said, “whatever have you been doing to yourself?”
“Nothing,” said her dear Jane very sulkily.
“Oh, if genius burns—your stairs are devilish—but if you’d rather I went away——”
“No, don’t go, Milly. I’m perfectly mad.” She jumped up and waved her outstretched arms over the mass of papers on the table. “Look at all this—three days’ work—rot—abject rot! I wish I was dead. I was wondering just now whether it would hurt much if one leaned too far out of the window—and—— No, I didn’t do it—as you see.”
“What’s the matter?” asked the other prosaically.
“Nothing. That’s just it. I’m perfectly well—at least I was—only now I’m all trembly with drink.” She pointed to the tea-cups. “It’s the chance of my life, and I can’t take it. I can’t work: my brain’s like batter. And everything depends on my idiot brain—it has done for these five years. That’s what’s so awful. It all depends on me—and I’m going all to pieces.”
“I told you so!” rejoined the other. “You would stay in town all the summer and autumn, slaving away. I knew you’d break down, and now you’ve done it.”
“I’ve slaved for five years, and I’ve never broken down before.”
“Well, you have now. Go away at once. Take a holiday. You’ll work like Shakespeare and Michelangelo after it.”
“But I can’t—that’s just it. It’s those stories for the Monthly Multitude; I’m doing a series. I’m behind now: and if I don’t get it done this week, they’ll stop the series. It’s what I’ve been working for all these years. It’s the best chance I’ve ever had, and it’s come now, when I can’t do it. Your father’s a doctor: isn’t there any medicine you can take to make your head more like a head and less like a suet pudding?”
“Look here,” said Milly, “I really came in to ask you to come away with us at Whitsuntide; but you ought to go away now. Just go to our cottage at Lymchurch. There’s a dear old girl in the village—Mrs Beale—she’ll look after you. It’s a glorious place for work. Father did reams down there. You’ll do your stuff there right enough. This is only Monday. Go to-morrow.”
“Did he? I will. Oh yes, I will. I’ll go to-night, if there’s a train.”
“No, you don’t, my dear lunatic. You are now going to wash your face and do your hair, and take me out to dinner—a real eighteenpenny dinner at Roches. I’ll stand treat.”
It was after dinner, as the two girls waited for Milly’s omnibus, that the word of the evening was spoken.
“I do hope you’ll have a good quiet time,” Milly said; “and it really is a good place for work. Poor Edgar did a lot of work there last year. There’s a cabinet with a secret drawer that he said inspired him with mysterious tales, and—— There’s my ’bus.”
“Why do you say poor Edgar?” Jane asked, smiling lightly.
“Oh, hadn’t you heard? Awfully sad thing. He sailed from New York a fortnight ago. No news of the ship. His mother’s in mourning. I saw her yesterday. Quite broken down. Good-bye. Do take care of yourself, and get well and jolly.”
Jane stood long staring after the swaying bulk of the omnibus, then she drew a deep breath and went home.
Edgar was dead. What a brute Milly was! But, of course, Edgar was nothing to Milly—nothing but a pleasant friend. How slowly people walked in the streets! Jane walked quickly—so quickly that more than one jostled foot-passenger stopped to stare after her.
She had known that he was coming home—and when. She had not owned to herself that the constant intrusion of that thought, “He is here—in London,” the wonder as to when and how she should see him again, had counted for very much in these last days of fierce effort and resented defeat.
She got back to her rooms. She remembers letting herself in with her key. She remembers that some time during the night she destroyed all those futile beginnings of stories. Also, that she found herself saying over and over again, and very loud: “There are the boys—you know there are the boys.” Because, when you have two little brothers to keep, you must not allow yourself to forget it.
But for the rest she remembers little distinctly. Only she is sure that she did not cry, and that she did not sleep.
In the morning she found her rooms very tidy and her box packed. She had put in the boys’ portraits, because one must always remember the boys.
She got a cab and she caught a train, and she reached the seaside cottage. Its little windows blinked firelit welcome to her, as she blundered almost blindly out of the station fly and up the narrow path edged with sea-shells.
Milly had telegraphed. Mrs Beale was there, tremulous, kindly, effective; with armchairs wheeled to the April fire—cups of tea, timid, gentle solicitude.
“My word, Miss, but you do look done up,” said she. “The kettle’s just on the boil, and I’ll wet you a cup o’ tea this instant minute, and I’ve a perfect picture of a chick a-roastin’ ready for your bit o’ dinner.”
Jane leaned back in the cushioned chair and looked round the quiet, pleasant little room. For the moment it seemed good to have a new place to be unhappy in.
But afterwards, when Mrs Beale had gone and she was alone in the house, there was time to think—all the time there had ever been since the world began—all the time that there would ever be till the world ended. Of that night, too, Jane cannot remember everything; but she knows that she did not sleep, and that her eyes were dry: very dry and burning, as though they had been licked into place between their lids by a tongue of flame. It was a long night: a spacious night, with room in it for more memories of Edgar than she had known herself mistress of.
Edgar, truculent schoolboy; Edgar at Oxford, superior to the point of the intolerable; Edgar journalist, novelist, war correspondent—always friend; Edgar going to America to lecture, and make the fortune that—he said—would make all things possible. He had said that on the last evening, when a lot of them—boys and girls, journalists, musicians, art students—had gone to see him off at Euston. He had said it at the instant of farewell, and had looked a question. Had she said “Yes”—or only thought it? She had often wondered that, even when her brain was clear.
Then—she pushed away the next thought with both hands, and drove herself back to the day when the schoolboy next door whom she had admired and hated, saved her pet kitten from the butcher’s dog—an heroic episode with blood in it and tears. Edgar’s voice, the touch of his hand, the swing of his waltz-step—the way his eyes smiled before his mouth did. How bright his eyes were—and his hands were very strong. He was strong every way: he would fight for his life—even with the sea. Great, smooth, dark waves seemed rushing upon her in the quiet room; she could hear the sound of them on the beach. Why had she come near the sea? It was the same sea that—— She pushed the waves away with both hands. The church clock struck two.
“You mustn’t go mad, you know,” she told herself very gently and reasonably, “because of the boys.”
Her hands had got clenched somehow, her whole body was rigid. She relaxed the tense muscles deliberately, made up the fire, swept up the hearth.
The new flame her touch inspired flickered a red reflection on the face of the cabinet—the cabinet with the secret drawer that had “inspired Edgar with mysterious tales.”
Jane went to it, and patted it, and stroked it, and coaxed it to tell her its secret. But it would not.
“If it would only inspire me,” she said, “if I could only get an idea for the story, I could do it now—this minute. Lots of people work best at night. My brain’s really quite clear again now, or else I shouldn’t be able to remember all these silly little things. No, no,” she cried to a memory of a young man kissing a glove, a little creeping memory that came to sting. She trampled on it.
Next day Jane walked four miles to see a doctor and get a sleeping draught.
“You see,” she explained very earnestly, “I have some work to finish, and if I don’t sleep I can’t. And I must do it. I can’t tell you how important it is.”
The doctor gave her something in a bottle when he had asked a few questions, and she went back to the cottage to go on bearing what was left of the interminable, intolerable day.
That was the day when she set out the fair white writing paper, and the rosy blotting-paper, and the black ink and the black fountain pen, and sat and looked at them for hours and hours. She prayed for help—but no help came.
“I’m probably praying to the wrong people,” she said, when through the dusk the square of paper showed vague as a tombstone in twilit grass—“the wrong people—No, there are no tombstones in the sea—the wrong people. If St Anthony helps you to find things, and the other saints help you to be good, perhaps the dead people who used to write themselves are the ones to help one to write!”
Jane is ashamed to be quite sure that she remembers praying to Dante and Shakespeare, and at last to Christina Rossetti, because she was a woman and loved her brothers.
But no help came. The old woman fussed in and out with wood for the fire—candles—food. Very kindly, it appears, but Jane wished she wouldn’t. Jane thinks she must have eaten some of the food, or the old woman would not have left her as she did.
Jane took the draught, and went to bed.
When Mrs Beale came into the sitting-room next morning, a neat pile of manuscript lay on the table, and when she took a cup of tea to Jane’s bedside, Jane was sleeping so placidly that the old woman had not the heart to disturb her, and set the tea down on a chair by the pillow to turn white and cold.
When Jane came into the sitting-room, she stood long looking at the manuscript. At last she picked it up, and, still standing, read it through. When she had finished, she stood a long time with it in her hand. At last she shrugged her shoulders and sat down. She wrote to Milly.
“Here is the story. I don’t know how I’ve done it, but here it is. Do read it—because I really am a little mad, and if it’s any good, send it in at once to the Monthly Multitude. I slept all last night. I shall soon be well now. Everything is so delightful, and the air is splendid. A thousand thanks for sending me here. I am enjoying the rest and change immensely.—Your grateful
She read it through. Her smile at the last phrase was not pretty to see.
When the long envelope was posted, Jane went down to the quiet shore and gazed out over the sunlit sands to the opal line of the far receding tide.
The story was written. There was an end to the conflict of agonies, so now the fiercer agony had the field to itself.
“I suppose I shall learn to bear it presently,” she told herself. “I wish I had not forgotten how to cry. I am sure I ought to cry. But the story is done, anyway. I daresay I shall remember how to cry before the next story has to be done.”
There were two more nights and one whole day. The nights had islands of sleep in them—hot, misty islands in a river of slow, crawling, sluggish hours. The day was light and breezy and sunny, with a blue sky cloud-flecked. The day was worse than the nights, because in the day she remembered all the time who she was, and where.
It was on the last day of the week. She was sitting rigid in the little porch, her eyes tracing again and again with conscious intentness the twisted pattern of the budding honeysuckle stalks. A rattle of wheels suddenly checked came to her, and she untwisted her stiff fingers and went down the path to meet Milly—a pale Milly, with red spots in her cheeks and fierce, frowning brows—a Milly who drew back from the offered kiss and spoke in tones that neither had heard before.
“Come inside. I want to speak to you.”
The new disaster thus plainly heralded moved Jane not at all. There was no room in her soul for any more pain. In the little dining-room, conscientiously “quaint” with its spotted crockery dogs and corner cupboard shining with willow pattern tea-cups, Milly shut the door and turned on her friend.
“Now,” she said, “I came down to see you, because there are some things I couldn’t write—even to you. You can go back to the station in the cab, I’ve told the man to wait. And I hope I shall never see your face again.”
“What do you mean?” Jane asked the question mechanically, and not at all because she did not know the answer.
“You know what I mean,” the other answered, still with white fury. “I’ve found you out. You thought you were safe, and Edgar was dead, and no one would know. But as it happens I knew; and so shall everybody else.”
Jane moistened dry lips, and said: “Knew what?” and held on by the table.
“You didn’t think he’d told me about it, did you?” Milly flashed—“but he did.”
“I think you must tell me what you mean,” Jane said, and shifted her hold from table to armchair.
“Oh, certainly.” Milly tossed her head, and Jane’s fingers tightened on the chair-back. “Yes, I don’t wonder you look ill—I suppose you were sorry when you’d done it. But it’s no use being sorry; you should have thought of all that before.”
“Tell me,” said Jane, low.
“I’ll tell you fast enough. You shall see I do know. Well, then, that story you sent me—you just copied it from a story of Edgar’s that was in the old cabinet. He wrote it when he was here; and he said it wasn’t good, and I said it was, and then he said he’d leave it in the secret drawer, and see how it looked when he came back. And you found it. And you thought you were very clever, I daresay, and that Edgar was dead, and no one would know. But I knew, and——”
“Yes,” Jane interrupted, “you said that before. So you think I found Edgar’s manuscript? If I did it I must have done it in my sleep. I used to walk in my sleep when I was a child. You believe me, Milly, don’t you?”
“No,” said Milly, “I don’t.”
“Then I’ll say nothing more,” said Jane with bitter dignity. “I will go at once, and I will try to forgive your cruelty. I would never have doubted your word—never. I am very ill—look at me. I had a sleeping draught, and I suppose it upset me: such things have happened. You’ve known me eight or nine years: have you ever known me do a dishonourable thing, or tell a lie? The dishonour is in yourself, to believe such things of me.”
Jane had drawn herself up, and stood, tall and haggard, her dark eyes glowing in their deep sockets. The other woman was daunted. She hesitated, stammered half a word, and was silent.
“Good-bye,” said Jane; “and I hope to God no one will ever be such a brute to you as you have been to me.” She turned, but before she reached the door Milly had caught her by the arm.
“No, don’t, don’t!” she cried. “I do believe you, I do! You poor darling! You must have done it in your sleep. Oh, forgive me, Jane dear. I’ll never tell a soul, and Edgar——”
“Ah,” said Jane, turning mournful eyes on her, “Edgar would have believed in me.”
And at that Milly understood—in part, at least—and held out her arms.
“Oh, you poor dear! and I never even guessed! Oh, forgive me!” and she cried over Jane and kissed her many times. “Oh, my dear!” she said, as Jane yielded herself to the arms and her face to the kisses, “I’ve got something to tell you. You must be brave.”
“No—no more,” Jane said shrilly; “I can’t bear any more. I don’t want to know how it happened, or anything. He’s dead—that’s enough.”
“But——” Milly clung sobbing to her, sobbing with sympathy and agitation.
Jane pushed her back, held her at arm’s length and looked at her with eyes that were still dry.
“You’re a good little thing, after all,” she said. “Yes—now I’ll tell you. You were quite right. It was a lie—but half of it was true—the half I told you—but I wanted you to believe the other half too. I did walk in my sleep, and I must have opened that cabinet and taken Edgar’s story out, because I found myself standing there with it in my hands. And he was dead, and—— Oh, Milly. I knew he was dead, of course, and yet he was there—I give you my word he was there, and I heard him say ‘Take it, take it, take it!’ quite plainly, like I’m speaking to you now. And I took it; and I copied it out—it took me nearly all night—and then I sent it to you. And I’d never have told you the truth as long as you didn’t believe me—never—never. But now you do believe me I won’t lie to you. There! Let me go. I think I was mad then, and I know I am now. Tell every one. I don’t care.”
But Milly threw her arms round her again. The love interest had overpowered the moral sense. What did the silly story, or the theft, or the lie matter—what were they, compared with the love-secret she had surprised?
“My darling Jane,” she said, holding her friend closely and still weeping lavishly, “don’t worry about the story: I quite understand. Let’s forget it. You’ve got quite enough trouble to bear without that. But there’s one thing, it’s just as well I found out before the story was published. Because Edgar isn’t dead. His ship has been towed in: he’s at home.”
“Don’t cry, dear,” said Milly; “I’ll help you to bear it. Only—oh dear, how awful it is for you!—he’s going to be married.”
Jane laughed again; and then she thinks the great, green waves really did rise up all round the quaint dining-room—rise mountains high, and, falling, cover her.
Jane was ill so long that Milly had to tell Edgar about the story after all, and they sent it in, and it was published in Jane’s name. So the little brothers were all right. And he wrote the next story for her too, and they corrected the proofs together.
Jane has always thought it a pity that Milly had not troubled to ask the name of the girl whom Edgar intended to marry, because the name proved, on enquiry, to be Jane.