Mr. and Mrs. Ranger
Mr. and Mrs. Ranger
With Misfortune Intervening
by W. Pett Ridge
"WIPE your boots well," commanded Mrs. Ranger insistently from the "kitchen, "bring your overcoat through to the scullery, 'ang up your hat, and walk quiet."
A large, mild-looking man, with his face set in a frame of light whiskers, came obediently on tip-toe through the passage. Mrs. Ranger, looking up from her desperate work of ironing, frowned at her husband.
"Ah!" she said bitterly, as she took a fresh iron from the fire and placed it perilously near to her plump cheek to test its warmth, "I see what you want to do. You want to wake up baby."
"I can't altogether say," replied Mr. Ranger, with the cautious air of one anxious not to irritate by direct contradiction, "as I do."
"Oh, yes, you do," she declared emphatically; "and don't you go hinting that I'm a story-teller the moment you put foot inside the 'ouse." Mr. Ranger, in the scullery, sighed. "What's it you say?"
"Never said nothing," he replied soothingly.
"That's your low artfulness," retorted Mrs. Ranger. "If you were anything like a man, you'd answer a civil question when it was put to you."
She ironed hard for a few minutes, not feeling sure of her argumentative ground; but when Mr. Ranger, having washed his face at the sink, reappeared, she was again ready for the attack.
"What makes you 'ome so early to-night?" she demanded.
"Committee meeting didn't last long," explained her husband. "I'd got everything ready for 'em, and they'd only got to agree with it all."
"And the rest, I s'pose, are drinking away in public-'ouses like anything, and never giving a thought to their poor, 'ard-working wives at home."
"Well, my dear," he said genially, from the fireplace, "they ain't 'usbands of yours."
"Don't throw that in my face, John," she said pathetically. "I know as well as you do that I could have made a better marriage than I did; but don't, don't——"
"What I mean to say is——"
"I know what you mean, John," she said tearfully, "but I don't think you ought to turn against me. It's bad enough when I go home on Sundays and take baby, to hear my sisters talk. 'Well, Emily,' they say, 'whatever you could see in the man beats me.'"
Mr. Ranger hummed a cheerful tune and opened the evening paper.
"I suppose I must have been off me 'ead," said Mrs. Ranger, as one anxious to find excuses for grievous error. "I can't account for it any other way." She turned a white garment, pressed heavily on the iron, and ran it up and down. "If you'd been good looking, I could have understood it."
Mr. Ranger laughed.
"I was never what you'd call a pretty man," he said jovially.
"If you'd had a pleasant manner about you," went on Mrs. Ranger, "that would have been something. As it is," here she touched her eyes with a corner of her apron, "as it is, I'm simply a laughin'-stock for one and all."
"I say, my dear," protested Mr. Ranger, "really!"
"Oh! a lot you care!" she cried fractiously, and applying herself again to her work. "I tell you, I'm getting pretty well tired of it. There's only one good thing about it," she said, with gloomy hopefulness, "it can't last after I'm dead and gone."
"Shall I read to you?" asked Mr. Ranger submissively, after a pause.
Mr. Ranger selected a column in the back page of his evening paper, a column in which unexpected aphorisms had for next-door neighbours a cookery recipe or a hint on fashions.
"'It is stated,'" read out Mr. Ranger, "'that black velvet will be all the rage during the ensuing season; it will not, however, be worn by—by débutantes.'"
"By—by débutantes," repeated Mr. Ranger doubtfully.
"Don't you dare refer to such creatures!" ordered Mrs. Ranger solemnly, and Mr. Ranger proceeded, in a chastened tone—
"'An old Oriental saying is to the effect that a wife and her husband should meet but once.'"
"There's something in that."
"'If all the hairpins that are lost in London during a year were placed on end, they would reach part of the way to the North Pole.'"
"Well, I never!" exclaimed Mrs. Ranger, now genuinely interested. "Is that a fact, John?"
"It's in the paper."
"Wonder where they pick up such things."
"'A useful sideboard,'" read on Mr. Ranger, greatly encouraged, "'may be made by procuring three old orange boxes, staining them the colour of mahogany——'"
"Your mother never said anything more about that chest of drawers of hers," said Mrs. Ranger, reminded of one of her numerous grievances. "That's your family all over."
"Understanding was," he remarked gently, "that you should have 'em when she was gone."
"She don't show much signs of going."
"I'm very glad," said Mr. Ranger slowly, "to say that she don't."
"Oh!" wailed Mrs. Ranger desolately, giving up work and subsiding into a chair, "oh! that it should have come to this. To have a 'usband who sets himself amongst your enemies, who snaps your head off directly you open your mouth, who hates the very ground you walk on!"
"My dear! my dear!" he protested.
"Don't speak to me, you—you—I don't know what to call you. You don't know how to treat a good wife, you don't."
"But I only——"
"John," she said, with forced calm, "I can't trust meself to talk to you. Go straight to bed at once, before I lose me temper."
This, it is to be observed, was no special occasion in the Ranger household, but merely the usual evening performance. Mr. Ranger, out at six in the morning to the works in Camden Town, and away all day, was engaged sometimes in the evening with business concerning the benevolent society of which he was secretary, and the pent-up conversation of his wife—who declined to mix with her neighbours in Charles Street—found itself culminating by the time he reached home, and was thereupon poured down on his patient head as hot lava from a volcano. This had lasted now for a year or two, but although experience had dulled the first feeling of resentment, Mr. Ranger was still far from the point where enjoyment is situated, and the almost certain knowledge that he would be met by upbraidings made him a quiet, reticent man during the day, so that one or two of his colleagues began to doubt him, suspecting secret mismanagement of the society's funds, the only thing in their opinion likely to make a man thoughtful and reserved. The habit of nagging should have been checked in Mrs. Ranger at the start; this remedy had been neglected, and she now comported herself, with rare exceptions, as though she were the least happy of wives—this in spite of the small baby whose efforts to amuse on Sunday afternoons would sometimes conquer her, on which occasions the Ranger household found peace under the beneficent rule of the infant autocrat. When the baby relinquished his position, and retired to his bassinette, the normal condition of affairs was resumed. Once or twice to Mr. Ranger came the thought of flight to a distant land, but he pushed this aside; he did, however, leave home suddenly one Saturday evening on the excuse that he had heard disquieting news of his mother's health. He kissed the baby, and would have kissed his wife, but she, disappointed in her evening's exercise of words, dared him to do so, and he sighed and went out.
Half an hour later two men called at the house in Charles Street. On Mrs. Ranger answering the door, they inquired in an important whisper whether Mr. Ranger was at home.
"Then he's got wind of it, Bill," said the first man, on receiving the answer.
"So long as he's got clear away," said Bill mysteriously, "we needn't grumble."
"We're friends of your 'usband's, ma'am," explained the first man.
"Pot-house friends, I suppose," retorted Mrs. Ranger.
"Not exactly," said the first man patiently. It seemed as though this type of wife was no stranger to him. "I wouldn't go so far as that. Can we step inside the passage for a moment?"
The two went in and closed the door.
"Anything you've got to say, say it sharp," requested Mrs. Ranger. "I've got work to do."
"To break it gently to you, ma'am," said Bill, "there's a warrant going to be taken out against Ranger for embezzling the funds of our society."
"Which of you is it that charges my husband with that?" demanded Mrs. Ranger.
"It isn't either of us," said the first man hastily. "It's a chap named Wilks, a man that personally I can't stand the sight of."
"He's too hasty, is Wilks," corroborated the other. "He runs past himself."
"Wilks got an idea into his head——"
"First one he ever had there."
"That your 'usband's accounts were all wrong, so he goes into them with one or two other equally woollen-'eaded members, and they report that everything's at sixes and sevens. They goes, therefore, to-morrow, they does, to the police court, swears black's white and white's no colour at all, and a warrant'll be issued. We hears of it, Bill and me——"
"I 'eard of it first," said Bill.
"And we puts our 'eads together and we says, 'Let's give him the office,' we says. 'Let's give him a chance of getting away.' And here we are."
Mrs. Ranger turned up the little oil lamp with an unsteady hand.
"I'm much obliged to you," she said quietly. "I sha'n't forget your kindness."
The two men, who could take upbraidings with calm, showed confusion.
"Where's he gone to, ma'am?"
"I haven't the slightest idea," she said steadily.
The two resumed their hats, and one opened the door.
"You can count on us, ma'am, if he gets caught."
"But he sha'n't be caught," said Mrs. Ranger. And closed the door after them. She ran upstairs and, as a first step, had a good cry, silently, because baby was asleep. Then she felt capable of seeing everything clearly. Ranger had probably not gone to his mother's—that announcement was part of the ruse—but there was a chance of finding him through that address, and hurrying to the telegraph office, she despatched a wire, ordering him on no account to return home. There remained other precautions to be taken. The man named Wilks had once paid some attentions to Mrs. Ranger's sister, but an economical habit of paying for nothing had prejudiced him in the eyes of the young lady, and his dismissal had incensed him against the family. To her sister Mrs. Ranger hurried by tram, and, the safety of the small boy at home urgently in her mind, hastily arranged a scheme with her young sister by which Mr. Wilks was to be asked to join a party on Monday, at ten o'clock in the morning, to go to Chingford. As to the question of expense, Mrs. Ranger gave her sister half a sovereign, and told her to convey with the invitation the fact that the trip would not cost Mr. Wilks anything; he would be unable to resist this, and Ranger would at least have another day to make himself secure. Returning home with all speed, she found that her boy, awaking in her absence, had roused the district with his appeals for the presence of a mother; that a neighbour had left her own children, who were ill, to soothe him.
"Thank you," said Mrs. Ranger, in the awkward way of one unused to give this form of recognition. "I'll do as much for you some day. How're yours?"
"Not more than middlin'," said the neighbour dolefully; "what I hope is that it's nothing catchin'."
There was money in the Savings Bank, and all of this could be withdrawn in a day or two and placed somehow at her husband's disposal. This might enable him to get abroad somewhere. She and baby could follow later. Thinking out the details on Sunday, it suddenly occurred to her that she had considered no plan which necessitated their separation; that, despite all the bitter remarks she had made to him, she was now only anxious to see him safe and be with him again. Indeed, she reproached herself already for her unkindness. This, probably, had driven him into confusion with his accounts, and a desire—say—to back horses. It was always betting that ruined secretaries. On Monday morning she received a post-card from him.
"Shall not return just yet. Thanks for telegraph message. Love to baby and you."
Mrs. Ranger was found, to her great confusion, in the act of kissing this card, when a knock at the wall from her neighbour signified that her presence was requested in the back garden.
"It's scarlet fever," said the neighbour, weeping, "and they've all got to go away."
"I thought," sobbed the neighbour, "I thought I'd tell you, because—because, you see, I went in to see your little boy the other night——"
Mrs. Ranger flew away from her and closed and locked the scullery door. She ran upstairs with a confused fear of finding her baby in the last stages of illness, but that young gentleman, engaged in manœuvring a tin train, met her with cheerfulness, begging only that she would for just one moment assist him in his labours by acting as tunnel, a part that could be played by any adult prepared to go down on hands and knees. But slightly reassured by this, she undressed the baby, subjecting him to a close examination, which he, as one full of the responsibility and worry of conducting a railway, felt bound to resent. He was astonished out of powers of speech by finding himself at this hour of the morning placed in bed and evening prayers said over him with unusual fervour. Master Ranger began to have fears for the sanity of the world.
The economical Mr. Wilks had been caught by the bait thrown out by Mrs. Ranger's sister, and the two men who had called on Saturday night called again to inform her secretly that no application had been made at the court that morning. They were extremely anxious that Mrs. Ranger should on no account tell them where her husband was, so that they might, if occasion required it, swear an affidavit of ignorance without a blush. They also comforted her to some extent by informing her that there had been a "whip round" amongst the dissentient and anti-Wilks members, and that with the money thus obtained it was proposed to procure the services of an accountant of repute, gifted with an ability to tell good figures from bad. So far as Mrs. Ranger was herself concerned, it appeared to her not very material whether her husband were guilty or innocent; her duty was to help him. Despite her worries, she could not help recognising that she now felt towards him as she had done in the old days of courtship. He possessed her thoughts as he had not done since that time. One or two wives whose husbands belonged to the society, and to whom the information had been dutifully repeated, called during the day to offer condolence.
"They're all alike," said one wife at the doorway, disappointed at not being asked inside, where discussion could have lasted an hour or two with comfort. "The more you 'ear about them, the more convinced you get that there isn't a pin to choose between 'em."
"I mustn't detain you," remarked Mrs. Ranger politely.
"Me time's me own," said the caller lightly. "As I was saying, this world wouldn't be so bad if it wasn't for the 'usbands."
"I'm sorry you're in trouble," said Mrs. Ranger.
"I wasn't thinking of myself. I was thinking of you."
"Why, yes," said the astonished caller. "Everyone knows how he's treated you. I don't wonder you used to speak your mind pretty plain. Other people used to blame you, but I——"
"My good woman," said Mrs. Ranger impressively. "Listen to me. Me and my husband were always very fond of each other, and if we ever had any words, it was my fault."
"Think what you're saying," implored the other woman.
"It was my fault, and I don't care who knows it. He's always been the best of husbands to me, and when this little affair is explained——"
"That'll take a bit of doing."
"Good morning," said Mrs. Ranger shortly, "and thank you for calling."
"You'll never," promised the caller solemnly to the next lady whom she honoured with a visit, and to whom she repeated this conversation, "you'll never find me doing a kind action again."
The Rangers having been at one on the question of thrift, it appeared that the amount invested in the Savings Bank exceeded the amount which Mr. Wilks had announced as the total of the defalcations. Mr. Wilks, having slightly over-eaten of gratuitous food at the Epping picnic, was indisposed for a day or two, and in his continued absence progress in the matter of police court proceedings was stopped. Mrs. Ranger contrived an elaborate scheme whereby her husband could proceed from his mother's house to Milford Haven and take thence a steamer for America; she wrote to him briefly, giving these directions and ordering him on no account to reply, but to act instantly in accordance with her instructions. Master Ranger showed continuous interest in his railway business and, for a baby expected to sicken with a grievous complaint, exhibited considerable sprightliness, expressing now and again a keen anxiety to see his father, thus causing tears to come very near to his mother's eyes. She waited anxiously and without much hope for the accountant's report, and when news came that Mr. Wilks had recovered from his severe attack of indigestion, she braced herself for the worst. The ship by this time would have left South Wales, and she thought continuously of her husband making his lonely way to a strange land. A single knock that came to her door on Thursday evening made her leave the doctor, who had called to see the baby, and hurry downstairs.
"John!" she whispered affrightedly.
"I ought not to have called," admitted Mr. Ranger humbly.
"You should have been on your way to America," she cried, pulling him in and closing the door.
"You told me to go, I know."
"Then why didn't you go? Why are you here now?"
And the lamp being out in the passage, Mr. Ranger, to his intense astonishment, received a hug and a kiss.
"I say," said the surprised Mr. Ranger, "do you know who I am?"
"You're my dear husband," whispered Mrs. Ranger. "But they sha'n't catch you."
"Well," he said good-humouredly, "we should look a bit silly if they caught us like this. All the same, give us another kiss."
Another knock came, and Mrs. Ranger, pushing her husband into the front room, locked the door and, holding the key behind her, went to answer it.
"It's all right, Mrs. Ranger, ma'am," said the two men.
"That there Wilks," added one of them, "is nothing more nor less than a——" He refrained from a description.
"The accounts are not wrong, then?" cried Mrs. Ranger.
"Come out right to a penny."
"'Ere," said the voice of Mr. Ranger from the front room, "who's saying anything about accounts? Let me out!"
"There's been a little misunderstanding, old man," explained one of the men, as Mr. Ranger reappeared.
"I'll misunderstand you," he threatened, "if you suggest there's anything wrong with my accounts!"
"It was Wilks."
"Well," said Mr. Ranger, "I'll Wilks him! And as I guess from what you say that there's been a lot of trouble over it whilst I've been away attending to my old mother, I'll resign."
"But we're going to subscribe and give you a silver teapot."
Mr. Ranger wavered and looked at his wife. She replied with a glance of appeal.
"Very well, then," he said. "Under the circs, I agree. But, mind you, no more Wilksing."
When the deputation had returned thanks and withdrawn, and the doctor had assured them that Master Ranger had been much too artful to catch the dreaded epidemic, an idea suddenly occurred to Mr. Ranger.
"Let me see," he said thoughtfully, "did I have that second kiss or did I not?"
"I really forget, John," answered Mrs. Ranger demurely. "But as I owe you a good lot, perhaps I'd better——"
"Pay up," suggested Mr. Ranger.