The Red House/Chapter 2
IN THE RED HOUSE
“YOU look like a historical picture,” Chloe said. “What's-his-name weeping over the ruins of Somewhere or other.”
“I am weeping, over the ruins of my happy home,” I replied, as I sat on a packing-case and stirred with my boot-toe a tangle of brown paper, string, dust, and empty bottles on the dining-room floor.
“Nonsense!” she said. “Your happy home's where I am, isn't it?”
“That's just what I say. This adorable Bandbox of ours contained my heart's one treasure, and therefore—”
“If you mean me,” she said, briskly, “your treasure is not going to be kept in a Bandbox any longer. It is going to live in a palace—”
“Historic associations and other delights,” she interrupted. “And not quite unfurnished, either. Poor, dear boy—was it unhappy at the nasty flitting, then? And was it like a cat, and did it hate to leave its own house? It shall have its paws buttered—its boots, I mean—the minute we get into the new house!”
She came and sat beside me on the packing-case, and I absently put my arm round her.
“Allow me a moment for natural regrets,” I said. “It is not fair to distract my mind with undue influence when I'm watching the dark waters of time close over the wreck of that good ship, the Bandbox.”
“That's fine writing,” she said, contemptuously. “Talk sensibly, there's a good boy.”
Acquiescing, I pinched her ears softly. What my wife terms sensible conversation is unworthy to be reported.
The Bandbox lay before us, so to speak, in little bits. All the curtains were down, and all the pictures. The crockery was packed up, so were the wedding-presents. The saucepans and kettles sat in a forlorn group on the sitting-room floor. Our comfortable beds were now nothing but rolls of striped ticking and long, iron bands—lying about where one could best trip over them. The wall-papers, which had looked so bright and pleasant with our books and pictures on them, now showed, in patches of aggressively unfaded color, the outlines of the shelves and frames that had hung against them. The fire that had boiled our breakfast-kettle had gone out, and the cold ashes looked inexpressibly desolate.
As we sat awaiting the arrival of our green-grocer, who had undertaken to “move” us, I pointed out the ashes to Chloe.
“I believe you would like to put some on your head,” said she.
The green-grocer had promised to come at nine o'clock. That was why we had got up in the middle of the night, and finished our packing before eight o'clock. It was now past ten.
“He has thought better of it,” said I. “He is a far-seeing man, and a kindly. He knows it cannot be for our real good to leave our Bandbox. Let's set to work and put all the things back in their places!”
“Here he is,” said Chloe, jumping off the packing-case at the squeaking sound which ever preludes any weak effort on the part of the Bandbox door-knocker. “Oh, Len,” she whispered, in awestruck tones, “it isn't the men! I can see through the door-glass, and it's a lady, and look at me!”
“Life hardly offers a dearer pleasure!” said I, and indeed, in her white gown and blue pinafore, with her brown hair loose and ruffled, she made so pretty a picture that I could not help thinking how a really high-toned green-grocer might well have refused base coin as the price of “moving” us, counting himself well paid by the sight of her.
“I'll go, if you like,” I said, and went. Chloe hid herself behind the kitchen door, where the jack-towel used to hang. Even its roller had been unscrewed and packed now.
“Chloe!” I called, “it's all right. It's only Yolande.”
“Only, indeed!” Miss Riseborough echoed. “Oh, here you are! What on earth's all this? A spring cleaning?”
“Yolande?” Chloe cried. “But I thought you were in Italy!”
“So I am. At least I was last week, and shall be again next. I've just run over for a few days on business, and I slipped away to the Bandbox to rest my eyes with a look at the turtle-doves. But they don't look restful at all.”
She was taking the long, pearl-headed pins out of her hat as she spoke.
“Oh!” said my wife, again. “Sit down—no—not on that—it's crocks and newspapers—and the chairs are all packed. Try the packing-case.”
But murmuring, “The divan for me!” Yolande sank down on a roll of bedding.
“I've yards to tell you, only I thought you were in that horrid Italy, and I've been too busy to write. We're moving into a house with twenty-nine rooms in it.”
Then the whole story came out—of Chloe's folly and of my madness. Yolande listened intently, her bright, gray eyes taking in Chloe's transports, and my all too moderate enthusiasm, as well as the devastated state of the Bandbox.
“You poor, dear things,” she said. “I wish I wasn't going back to Italy to-morrow. I should like to lend a hand.”
“I know you would,” said I, with intent.
“Oh yes, but you can't wound me with your sneers. I own I love to have a finger in my neighbors' pies, and the more I love my neighbor, the more I long to infest her house on baking-days. But look here, I wish you'd do me a good turn. If your house is that awful size, you will certainly have a couple of spare rooms in it.”
“More like five-and-twenty,” I said.
“Well, I've let my flat, unfurnished. Could you, would you, can you, will you be angels enough to take in my poor, homeless furniture, and give it board and lodging and the comforts of a home for a month or two?”
Of course we would, gladly, and we said so. And then we talked—always of the Red House.
“You'll have a good deal of fun for your money in your new house,” Yolande said, at last, “but, oh, you make me feel as if you were the Babes in the Wood and I were the wicked uncle. I do wish I could stay and help you, but I've three pupils waiting in Florence with their mouths wide open, and a mere temporary chaperon guarding them, and I must scurry back to fill those gaping beaks with fat plums of learning. It's a dreadful trade, a crammer's—almost as bad as the samphire-gatherers'.”
“Wish the pie luck, anyhow,” said I, drawing the cork of the ginger-ale, “though you can't have your fingers in it this time. But I dare say there'll be a bit of cold pie left for you when you come back.” So we stood up solemnly and raised our glasses to my toast,
“Here's luck to the Red House!”
Then said Yolande,
“And to the Babes in the Wood!”
And to Chloe's toast, “Here's to the wicked uncle—I mean the fairy godmother,” we emptied the glasses.
Then Yolande said good-bye, and pinned her hat on to her bright hair. At the door she turned to say:
“By-the-way, you won't mind my asking you to keep my things aired, will you? The furniture-warehouse people always let them get mothy, and give the piano a cold in its head. You might hang up the pictures, if you don't mind the trouble; they've all got cords, and they keep better hung up, like meat or game, you know. And furniture keeps best when it's being used. You'll sit on my chairs now and then, for the sake of the absent, won't you? My settle would go awfully well with your gate-table, and my oak press would do in those ‘marble halls’ you were talking about. I must rush, or miss my train. Good-bye. I'll send the furniture down to-morrow.”
And she was gone.
Chloe turned to me with wide-open, sparkling eyes.
“Oh, Len, isn't she a darling? Just because she saw how our Bandboxful of furniture would rattle about in that big house like a peanut in a cocoanut shell, to lend us all hers! She is a darling.”
“She is,” I admitted, “and her hair is the real Venetian red. But you'll miss the furniture horribly when she takes it away.”
“Don't grumble,” said Chloe. “We shall have all her lovely things for months and months, and by the time she comes back we shall have made some money to buy things. I'm going to work like a nigger directly we get settled. And so must you. Oh, here are the men at last. Two hours late!”
“Perhaps it is as well,” I said. “Harriet is only just ready.”
Our fat-faced maid-servant, who had rigidly refused during the whole morning to assist us in the least, on the ground that she “had her packing to see to,” now descended the stairs, bearing her whole wardrobe in two brown-paper parcels and a tin hat-box.
“Come in, please,” said Chloe, to our remover. “You'd better take these oak boxes first. They're very heavy.”
“I wants chesties of drawerses,” said the man, hoarsely, “all the chesties of drawerses you've got, and the pianner. Come on, Bill.”
“Right you are, Charley,” was the response.
“We haven't a piano, here,” said Chloe, and Charley seemed at once to form the lowest opinion of us. He was a thick-set ruffian with a red and angry eye. He was one of the four helpers engaged by the green-grocer to “move” us. His clothes and those of his friends smelled strange and stuffy, as though they had been smeared with putty and mutton fat, and locked away for years in a cupboard full of pickled onions and yellow soap and mice. The clothes of the unskilled laborer always have this strange scent. It lingers about everything they touch in passing through a house, and after days its freshness is still unimpaired. But I never knew any scent so overpowering as that which clung to the clothes of Charley and his mates. They strayed loudly up the uncarpeted stairs, urgent in their insistence on “chesties of drawerses,” and Chloe would have followed them, but Harriet came forward with, “Please, 'm, could I speak to you for a moment?”
“Please, I should wish to leave at the end of my month. Mother says the place ain't fit for me. The 'ouse is too large and the work is too 'eavy.”
“But we're going into another house,” said Chloe, cheerfully.
“Mother don't 'old with movings,” resumed Harriet, “and she says the 'ouse is too large and the work too 'eavy.”
“Very well; you can go into the kitchen and wait till we're ready to start,” said Chloe, with dignity.
But when the fat-faced traitress had stumped away down the little passage, Chloe dragged me into the dismantled dining-room and flung her arms round my neck. This was not, I knew, affection. It was merely despair.
“She's a pig,” said my wife, with tears in her voice. “Her month's up in a week. She might have told us before. And I'm sure we've been kind to her. I gave her that green moreen petticoat, and some stockings and collars and things, only yesterday. And the petticoat was as good as new.”
“I'll have satisfaction for that outrage, at any rate. A moreen petticoat—and green, too!” I cried. “She must be a stranger to all the higher emotions of our fallen nature. Cheer up, my darling, we'll get another girl right enough—a better one.”
“We couldn't have a worse,” said she. “Oh, they've broken something. I heard it smash. I do hope it's not the Dresden vases.”
It was only our best looking-glass, the same in which I had rebelliously dared to shave. “Never mind,” I said. “They'll have to replace it, and Charley will be unlucky for seven years. That's one comfort.”
It was almost our only one. Reckless as a herd of pigs in mid-flight, yet slow as an army of lame snails, Charley and his confederates packed our Bandboxful of furniture into the dark van that smelled of matting and straw and quarter-day. They broke an “occasional” table, and the door of the corner cupboard, and they smashed on the door-step the great jar of pickled walnuts which my mother-in-law had told me would last us a year. But it was Harriet who, sulkily obeying my order to make herself useful, went to the top of the house to fetch two highly colored texts from the walls of her bed-room, and, returning, fell over the best toilet set, smashing the jug and the soap-dish lid! It was rather a nice set, too, dark green, that Yolande had brought from Italy, and, by us, here, totally irreplaceable. I sent Harriet into the back kitchen then.
“And don't you come out till we're ready to start,” I said.
When the last of our “sticks” had been dragged from the house, and the van had been half unpacked to recover my coat and hat, zealously hidden under the dining-room table in the van's centre, and when the forlorn party of chairs and bookcases had been removed from the pavement and once more envanned, we added Harriet, speechless with sulky displeasure, to the van-load; and as we watched them drive off, my heart, at least, was lighter.
We set up our bicycles ready, and blew up the tires. Then we went all over the little house, “to say good-bye to it,” my wife said. Her face was quite sad now. It was in that horrid little dressing-room that she slipped her hand into mine and said:
“I didn't think I should be sorry. But I am. Dear little Bandbox—we've been very happy here, haven't we? Oh, do say you think we shall be just as happy there. You do, don't you?”
A narrator cannot be expected to chronicle all his replies. My answer satisfied Chloe, anyhow, and she consented to dry her eyes on my handkerchief.
Then we took a last look round, and went out.
“Good-bye,” we said to our Bandbox, and wished it a happy future.
“I hope the next people who live in you will be kind to you,” said Chloe, “and keep you clean, and be very happy in you, poor, dear little house.”
We rode away, turning at the corner for one more last look at our Bandbox. Its bare windows blinked forlornly at us in the June sunlight like the eyes of a deserted orphan. We rode on in silence.
We passed our furniture about half a mile from the Bandbox. And we had been keeping our tempers for more than two hours in the spacious emptiness of the Red House before the rattle of harness and the scent of Charley's coat announced the arrival of the van.
Charley and his minions made a hollow pretence of putting the furniture in its place. They did put the bedsteads together, insecurely, and in the wrong rooms; and they set up “chesties of drawerses” against walls. The oak chests they carried to the attic, and the best steel fire-irons were discovered, weeks later, in the cellar. But almost everything—saucepans, crockery, coal-scuttles, books, hearth-rugs, stair-rods, fenders—was dumped on the floors of the hall, the kitchen, and the dining-room. I remember that I had to move half a ton of mixed valuables to find the tea-kettle, when, after two hours of breathless energy, we heard the van's retreating wheels, and were moved towards the kitchen by one common longing—for tea.
Chloe got the tea, and I cleared it away. Harriet reluctantly consented to wash up the tea-things.
“But,” she added, and it really was like a blow in the wind, “I must get away before dark. No, it ain't no manner of use talking. There's ghosts in this 'ouse, and I wouldn't sleep under this 'ere roof, not for any wages you could offer.”
In vain we besought her to reconsider this decision.
“Mother always said to me, ‘Don't you never lay your 'ead on your pillow in a 'ouse where there's ghosts, or you'll see 'em walk—safe as eggs. It runs in our family,’ says she; ‘my mother's second cousin see a calf without a 'ead walkin' on the church-yard wall, as plain as the nose on your face,’ says she. And I can't go agin my own mother, so if it's convenient to you, sir, I'll leave as soon as I've dried the tea-things.”
“If it's convenient!” said Chloe. And then we both began to laugh. That saved the situation, besides making Harriet uncomfortable. We let her go, because we could not help it, and we set out our supper—it was tinned salmon and bread—on a sheet of newspaper, because we couldn't find any table-cloths.
And we washed our hands with mottled soap, because the brown Windsor soap had hidden itself away somewhere. And we dried them on Chloe's apron, because the towels were mislaid. And we made some cocoa, because the ginger-ale could not, at the moment, be found. It never was found, by-the-way. The search for lamps being fruitless, we walked together to the village in the cool, pale evening, and, returning with a pound of candles in a blue paper, it seemed natural to wander round the shadowy gardens, slowly wrapping themselves in the blue veil of the summer night. The stars came out, one by one, and a little moon that had been like a cloudy ghost through the gold of the afternoon seemed to wash her face with liquid light, and set to work shining in bright earnest. The house seemed very chill, very dark, very silent, as we let ourselves in. The most energetic search and half a box of wax vestas failed to find us a single candlestick. How we regretted, then, the empty bottles left behind at the Bandbox!
At last we set up our candles by melting the ends and sticking them in tea-saucers. Then I broke up a packing-case and made a fire in our room. By a fortunate accident, Chloe, looking for her brush and comb, found the blankets. We went round the house and closed all the shutters.
“Now,” said Chloe, cheerfully, “we really are at home.”
I looked round on the unspeakable confusion—the whole Bandboxful of our effects emptied out, as it were, “tumbled out of a sack” upon the floor, and I said,
The birds woke us in the morning; such an orchestra as I had never even imagined. Sleep seemed fled forever. It was I who went down to light the fire for breakfast. It was good to fling back the shutters and window-sashes, and to lean out through the drifted net of green jasmine leaves and taste the fresh sweets of the morning.
Presently Chloe came and leaned beside me. The whole world seemed blue and green and gold; the trees and the grass sparkling in the dewy sunshine, and on the bright turf the long, black, tree shadows.
“I never saw shadows like these,” Chloe breathed; “they're quite different to the evening ones. And there's no one next door! Oh, it is very good!” The birds sang, the sun shone softly, the swan in the moat spread wide wings, preening his white feathers. A purple haze covered the hills. It was indeed “very good.” The wood began to crackle. I looked at my watch. Five o'clock.
“We must always get up at half-past four,” Chloe said. “I had no idea anything could be so beautiful. Think of the poor silly people who only get up at eight.”
I thought of them, and I knew that very soon we should once more be numbered among that pitiable band.
But I said nothing. We cleared away the breakfast and made our room tidy, and every now and then she would stop to clap her hands—once there were two flat-irons and a duster in them—and to say:
“Oh, isn't it perfect? Isn't it amusing and interesting and thrilling, and everything anything can possibly be?”
We arranged a scheme of disentanglement, and applied it to our goods. Chloe dived into the mass and came up with treasures, which under her directions I bore to the situations she indicated. But many things seemed homeless, and the command, “Oh, I don't know—anywhere—on the kitchen-table,” grew so frequent that the kitchen-table groaned beneath its load, and even the tall dressers showed signs of repletion.
But we got one room clear—the white parlor, Chloe called it. It was really half panelled in oak—painted, of course, by some vandal middle-Victorian hand—but still charming, with its carved garlands and flourishes, its high mantelpiece and odd corners. We swept it; we put down our best carpet and hearth-rug; we brought in our oak gate-table and our polished beechwood chairs with the rush seats, and the corner cupboard, and the little bow-legged oak sideboard; we put some green Flemish pots on the mantel-piece. Chloe ran out and came back with half a dozen late tulips, and when she had set them on the table in a jar of Chinese willow-pattern (hand-work, none of your transfers), why, then we had a “room ready,” a refuge, as Chloe said.
We also carted the remaining chaos into the kitchen.
“Because I give that up,” she said; “we can't get that clear for ages.” So pictures and curtains, and all the things that take time to their fixing, were carried away. And the swept hall looked large and beautiful, especially when we had cleaned the red and white of the marble inlaid floor with a wet broom and a pail of water.
As I rubbed the broom vigorously over a discolored square of the marble, I was suddenly conscious of a guilty feeling. Analyzed, the sensation frightened me. I was becoming interested in these details. And I had not once thought about my work, though to-morrow was the day for my article in the Weekly Wilderness. It had never even entered my head to dream that I could ever be interested in cleaning a floor. Yet here I was calling joyously to Chloe, deep in a packing-case in the kitchen:
“It's coming the same color as the other.”
“It won't be when it's dry,” she said, “but I've found the corkscrew and the lamps. One of them is wrong way up and full of paraffine. At least it was. It's anywhere you like now.”
I carried my pail and broom into the kitchen.
“My dear,” I said, “have you found my shaving-brush?”
“Why?” she asked. “Do you want to put it down on the parlor mantel-piece?”
The very thought appalled me, and the fact that it did so appalled me still more deeply.
I pointed out that a shaving-brush is useful for other purposes than for putting down on things, and presently we found it involved in a pair of lace curtains.
We had lunch in the garden.
And then Yolande's furniture suddenly loomed at our gates. We had wholly forgotten it. The white parlor had to be reorganized to accommodate her oak settle. The piano we boldly ordered into the drawing-room, where it lived out long days of lonely grandeur. Her furniture was really charming—Chippendale chairs and a Sheraton bureau, pictures by the dozen and lovely crocks by the score. The men who moved her things had linen jackets, and they were not scented like Charley. They actually put things where we wanted them. We stood by in humble amazement. But when they asked where they should hang the pictures, we looked at each other, almost speechless with wonder and gratitude. They hung the pictures, they asked for a broom, and, if ours had not been wet, they would have swept up the dust their careful feet had not been able to help bringing in. They dusted the furniture, and asked if there was anything else they could do. I said there was not, and felt in my pocket for silver, far more than I could afford. But Chloe said:
“Oh yes! How kind of you! Do please ask every one you know if they know of a servant. We haven't one, and you see—”
They saw. They promised all things; they took my silver and went.
And that very evening a trim young woman came “about the situation,” accepted it, went off to fetch her box, and never returned. Perhaps she saw the ghost as she went out. We never knew.
Next day I sat down with my type-writer in the parlor. Chloe went to London to ransack the registry-offices, so that there was no one to do house-work. Therefore, when I had done my article—it was on “The Pleasures of Home,” I remember—I tidied the place up a little. Happening to find the black-leading apparatus in the bread-pan, I tried my hand at polishing the parlor-grate. It is much less easy than one would suppose, and I barked my knuckles against the bars. Then I cleaned some windows. I knew, from Cranford, that this was done with newspapers. The middles of the panes were easy, the corners inaccessible and irritating. Then I got tea ready and filled the lamps. I experienced all the sensations of an explorer in an unknown and ravishing country. All this was new and extraordinarily fascinating. I chopped wood and filled a box with it, ready for the morning. I also chopped my finger, and decided that I had done enough house-work for the moment. Then I remembered my article. I had forgotten to post it, and the post was gone when I got to the village. I had to walk to Blackheath to catch the late mail—four miles there and back. When I got home Chloe was sitting on the door-step with a perfect stranger.
“We've been here hours,” she said. “How could you go off like that? This is Ellen—she is coming to live with us.”
I could see in Ellen's eye that she was not so sure of this. When Ellen saw the kitchen, with its indescribable complications of domestic matter, she blenched, and I knew the worst. We all turned to, however, and tidied the kitchen superfically, arranged Ellen's bedroom, assisted her to prepare supper, went to bed worn out, and came down in the morning to find Ellen gone. She was not wholly bad; she had some kind impulses. She had lighted the fire and put on the kettle before leaving. But we were a little late that morning, and all the water had boiled away. When I filled the kettle at the tap it cracked, and Chloe said it was always the way, and snatched the kettle out of my hand, and boiled the water for tea in a saucepan that had had cabbage in it. So, after breakfast, I insisted on a turn in the quiet, sunny garden, and she grew calmer.
“It is awful, though, isn't it?” she said.
“Yes,” I owned, “but I black-leaded the parlor-grate yesterday, and I did several other things that you never noticed.”
She was stricken with remorse. I followed up my advantage.
“And now I'm going to scold us, pussy. It was entirely my fault that we left the Bandbox, but I hope you'll forgive me, and let's make the best of it. And we mustn't take things too seriously. What does it all matter? Through life, my precious pussy-kitten, the best weapon is laughter. Let us agree to laugh at everything, unless we have to cry at it, and if we do cry, to cry—like this.”
For she was crying—with her head on my shoulder and my arms round her.
“I'm so tired,” she said, presently.
“I know you are. Now we're going to sit down on this dear, old stone bench under the red may-tree, and, if you're good, I'll tell you things. We won't try to get a servant again till the kitchen's straight. And we'll shut up all the rooms except the kitchen, and we'll move our bedroom things into one of the down-stairs rooms, so as not to have to use the stairs at all. And the little room that opens out of the kitchen we'll put two tables in, and do our work there—for we must work, you know. And we'll take it in turns to do the house-work, and the other shall work. And when it's all straight we'll get a treasure of a maid, and all live happy ever after! Now you're going to sit here quietly, and I'm going to fetch the Inland Voyage, and read aloud to you for an hour.”
We did all these things, and gradually some sort of order evolved itself from chaos, and the scent of Charley's coat faded slowly away.
Then we had a rapid succession of unsuitable servants; five, I think, were honest, the sixth went off with all Chloe's lace petticoats and her mink cape.
Then we got a woman from the village to come in by the day. She worked fairly well, but she carried a covered basket, and it cost us too much in tea and butter.
All this time we had never had a moment for gardening, and Chloe's dream of growing our own vegetables was being swiftly hidden by the weeds of oblivion. There were flowers in plenty, though, now. Hundreds of roses, red and white and yellow. Thousands of pink roses. Canterbury-bells, red daisy-flowers, lupins, columbines, and giant larkspurs. Chloe kept the house a flowery bower. I cleaned the boots and the knives, and whistled at my work. It was when half the neck of mutton got into that covered basket and, ostrich-like, left its tail sticking out, that I told Mrs. Coombe that we must part. She asked for no explanation; I gave none. We parted without unnecessary words. That day it began to rain—a thunder-storm first, then slow, steady, pelting rain for hours and hours. We sat over the kitchen fire that evening and told ghost stories till I saw my wife beginning to cast glances over her shoulder to where the darker shadows lurked in the corners of the great, black-raftered kitchen. Then I lit twelve candles, set then on the mantel-piece, and made port-wine negus, and we drank it and went to bed.
In the pitch-dark middle of the night, Chloe caught me by the arm.
“You must wake up,” she said, in a terrified whisper; “there's some one in the house—or—or something. I've been awake for hours. Listen! Can't you hear it?”
“It's like—Oh, Len, I am so frightened It's a sort of dripping, dripping.”
She held me very tight with both hands.
“It's like—it's as if some one had been killed and there was blood dripping onto the floor. Oh, listen, and do strike a light! I'm afraid to put my arm out for the matches. It is like blood, dripping! Listen!”
And it was.