Nobodies at Home/A Drug in the Market
NOBODIES AT HOME
A Drug in the Market.
HE read one day in paper that "no man is indispensable," and the dictum, with its comment, affected him as a vague solace, akin to his more pronounced emotion, when some City speculator, lord of many clerks, fell to the Gazette or the Assizes; for in his meditative moments (commonly after the wholemeal scone and glass of milk at mid-day) he felt himself the least regarded of mortals. Viewed as a calculating machine, he was the veriest drug in the market. Were his place at the desk vacated, fifty men would rush to compete for it. "The Firm" cared not a finger-snap whether he stayed or went. As householder, husband, father of a family, he seemed of but little more account; he lived in subjection to his wife, and had no voice in the ruling of his offsprings.
There lay the core of discontent. But for domestic unhappiness, his mind, in all likelihood, would never have expanded to that larger view of personal nullity. The man had strong domestic affections. To his sweetheart he had humbled himself; as now, to his wife. The three children grew at his heart-strings. Through the long day of automatic toil he thought constantly of home; yet, in the true sense, home he had none. As soon as he crossed the threshold Mrs. Potter's voice fell upon his ear, and he quailed and shrank into smallness.
"It isn't as though she didn't mean well." Thus to his crony, the fellow-clerk to whom alone he unbosomed himself. "There are men that have beasts of wives, yet live a happier life than I do. She can't cook a meal, but I'd overlook that; she does her best. It's her domineering spirit! She won't let me call my soul my own. You should see her look when I take home the money! She always seems to expect more; and when she's counted it, why, it's like you'd look at a shoeblack if he tried to cheat you in the change. There's just so much, and only so much, and there'll never be more, and she knows it; and she seems to say, 'Yes, that's the kind of fellow you are—a common stick-in-the-mud clerk. I could have had my choice of a score like you.' And she talks about the young 'uns and what's going to become of them. As if I didn't lay thinking about it long after she's asleep! She means well. She never spends on herself if she can help it. But what do you s'pose the children think of their father, hearing her talk as she does, and seeing me of no more account in my own house than the door-mat!"
The defect lightly touched upon, his wife's infamous cookery, was more to Potter than to most men of his standing, for he made a hobby of hygiene. From obscurely popular prints devoted to this topic he had gathered much technical information; he would fain have ruled the diet of his household on certain principles, more or less rational. For such refinements Mrs. Potter had the scorn of her kind. She flung upon the table masses of food, vitiated in pot, frying-pan, or oven, and her husband forced his appetite, lest, by showing distaste, he should give occasion for indignant, reproof. It was his misfortune to have a delicate stomach, and his digestion suffered lamentably.
Suffering in silence, yet obviously suffering, he incurred the charge of sullenness. "Oh, you've a nasty temper, you have!" Mrs. Potter would then exclaim. She knew herself secure from retort, being not only conscious of a sweet disposition, but well assured by experience that Potter would never dare to justify himself.
His defence was uttered in foro conscientiæ, as he rode on the 'bus to his mill. Denying himself a newspaper, he folded his arms, drooped his head, and mutely delivered vehement orations. An observer (were such a being conceivable on the Hackney 'bus) would have felt surprise—even alarm—in beholding the man's countenance. His eyebrows rose and fell with tragic rhythm; his eyes glared or plaintively softened; his lips worked in the passion of voiceless speech. It was seldom that he saw or heard anything on his way to the City. The clap of the horses' hoofs, the rumble of the wheels, made long-familiar accompaniment, which exalted the recitative of his fervid thought. Stoppages brought him to a period; the clatter of the pulled brake set him going again.
He would soon be forty, and it depressed him to reflect upon his age. In the early time of marriage he had encouraged himself with the thought that, as he grew older, an increase of virile dignity would impose respect. On the contrary, his wife seemed to despise him only the more. His eldest boy was nine, and Potter tried to inspire him with feelings of affectionate reverence as they walked together on a Sunday morning; but the lad would give no ear to moral and instructive talk; he would not take his father seriously.
Of late, in the night watches, a vision had possessed him. He was incapable of desiring his wife's death, and yet—suppose his wife were to die? Suppose her annual bronchitis were to carry her off this coming winter? It was possible, and every possibility of his narrow life had a thousand times revolved before him. This one, resisted yet recurrent, threatened to become his nightly familiar. If his wife died, why, then he would at once emerge from insignificance, and enter upon a life of comparative dignity.
He saw himself living alone with his children. He saw himself grown more studious of personal appearance: grave, yet ever kindly of aspect; the three youngsters looking up to him when he spoke. He would break them of bad habits; he would teach them the properties of food, the principles of hygiene, their loved voices would respond to him with dutiful accent. Hand in hand with the little one, and the two elder walking before, he would go forth on Sunday mornings, visible to all neighbour-folk, as a man of claims and responsibilities.