The Red House/Chapter 3
I HAD held my breath to listen to the drip, drip—loud in itself and hollow in its echo through the grisly silence of the middle night. Now I let my breath go in a sigh.
“It is blood, dripping,” said Chloe.
“It can't be,” I said; “there's no one in the house to kill any one else—and no one to be killed, either. Don't be a darling idiot.”
“Perhaps it's some one who was killed long ago!” Her teeth chattered.
“A ghost, you mean?” I said, cheerfully. “Not it! I expect some tramp's got in and upset a beer-bottle. Let me get my boots and the poker.”
I had always resolved that in no straits would I ever, barefooted, face a burglar. Think of the horrible advantage of hobnailed burglar-boots over shrinking, bare toes.
“But there is no poker up here,” Chloe said. “You know we never could find the bedroom fire-irons. My umbrella; you know—the one with the purple knob.”
One of the ugliest of our wedding presents, the umbrella with the rock-amethyst handle the size of a fives-ball, stood in the wardrobe corner. I balanced it in my hand.
“I think it would crack a nut, if need were,” said I—“even the most hardened nut of the most hardened burglar.”
“How can you?” said Chloe. She was creeping into her dressing-gown. “Now, then—I'll carry the light.”
“You're not coming with me?”
“Do you think I'm going to stay here alone?”
“But if it is a burglar?”
“You mean you're coming to take care of me?”
“Oh, don't,” she said—“only I will come.”
I blew out the candle and took her hand.
“If we are to surprise any enterprising professional, we sha'n't do it with a candle,” said I. “Now, then—”
We opened the door slowly and softly, and very softly and slowly crept along the dark passage hand in hand.
At the stair-foot we stood still and listened. Not a sound but the drip-drip-dripping. It seemed to come from the white parlor.
My wife clutched my hand in both hers.
“I can't,” she whispered, and struck a match. Her hands trembled so that she could hardly light the candle.
I took it from her.
“You'd better go back,” I said. But we went on.
I flung open the door of the white parlor, while Chloe stood with her back to the wall, hiding her face in her hands.
I took two steps into the darkness. Then I laughed aloud and put down the candle on the table.
“Len, what is it? Oh—what is it?”
“It's all right, dear,” I said, “but it's fortunate I brought the umbrella.”
I put it up as I spoke, and, catching Chloe's hand, drew her under it. The drops splashed on the umbrella heavily from the ceiling above. Chloe and I looked in each other's eyes and laughed.
“Oh dear, how silly! Why, it's only the water coming through the roof!”
“Yes—only!” said I. The floor was an inch deep in water, and from the ceiling it was falling, in heavy, capricious showers, on furniture, books, cushions, curtains.
“You're not frightened now?” I asked, shutting the wet umbrella with a flap.
“Then we'd better get dressed and see what can be done.”
We dressed hastily and lit the candles in the tall, old brass candlesticks on the white-parlor mantel-piece. It took us some little time to find places, where these could stand without prompt extinguishment from the dripping ceiling.
Then, barefooted both, with my trousers tucked up, and Chloe's skirts kilted to the knee, we did our best with pails and mops and house flannels.
We carried all our books out into the hall, and stood them up on their edges, with their leaves open, to dry. We carried out our furniture-the settle, and the gate-table, and the rush-bottomed beechwood chairs. We took down the wet curtains and hung them on the bacon-rack in the kitchen. “I do wish we kept a pig,” said Chloe, in parenthesis. “Fancy sides of bacon swinging here, instead of wet, floppy, droppy curtains!” It was a night's work. When the gray of the dawn showed us, through rain-wrinkled window-panes, the green tangle of our garden, all beaten down to one dripping desolation, with a gray sky above, and over all the rain, I looked at my wife and said:
“This has been an adventurous night. It is a ghastly morning. Do people who have been up all night have breakfast? Tea, for instance? You are wet as any mermaid, and twice as pretty. But water's not your native element. You must be dried. I'll light a fire.”
She had caught at the rope of bright hair that hung below her waist, and was wringing the water out of it. Her bare feet were pink and rosy in the mixed radiance of dawn and candlelight. Her striped red-and-white skirts gave her a sort of coquettish smartness, as of a Parisienne at Trouville. She held out her hand with a dramatic gesture.
“Come with your mermaid,” she said; “come and light a fire of driftwood in her ocean cave.”
She led me through the kitchen to the little room where we worked. A fire burned red and glowing; on her drawing-table, white damask covered, were bread, butter, tea-things. The brass kettle sang softly on the hob.
“The ghost must have done this,” said I. “You said you'd make it run errands, but I never thought you'd get it to light fires.”
“But I did, you see,” said Chloe. “I taught it—little odd minutes when you were carrying buckets and sticking up damp books on their poor tails, so that you shouldn't notice what I was doing. Isn't it a clever ghost? Aren't I a good teacher?”
“You are an angel,” I said. “I'll make the tea.”
“Aren't I a noble wife? Aren't you proud of me? Don't you love me very, very, very?” said she.
“Not exactly,” said I, holding her in one arm and making the tea with the other. “Respect, admiration for your talents—look out, you nearly had the teapot over!—but love! Don't be exacting—and don't shake my arm, or I shall scald us both. Go and get something dry on, and I'll cut some sandwiches.”
“And you don't love me?”
“I might like you better if you were dry. Go! Run! Skurry!”
“The potted meat is in the chiffonnier,” she said. “Are you going to keep wet?”
“Yes, I've got to go out and see what there is on the roof, as soon as it's light enough to see to put up a ladder. Madam, withdraw, and take five drops of eucalyptus oil on a piece of sugar.”
It was rather a pleasant breakfast, though the drip, drip, drip went on merrily all the time.
When the last sandwich had vanished Chloe put her elbows on the table and said:
“Len, I'm afraid it's very wrong, but I've rather enjoyed myself. I seem to like things to happen. But, oh, what a mess everything is in!”
“It is,” said I, “but I do, too. And it is wicked—a morbid craving for excitement, even at the expense of a cherished library—the cream of our country's literature. Now put on your macker, and we'll go up on the roof.”
I helped her into her mackintosh, and we went.
The roof of the white parlor is one of the leaded spaces on the wings of the Red House. It has a parapet at back and front. These formed a sort of tank; all the waste-pipes were stuffed up with leaves and twigs, and I pulled a black, sodden starlings' nest out of one of them. The rain came down pitilessly. I looked about me. I knew that, below, the flood in the white parlor must be momently gaining in depth and intensity.
“Chloe,” I said, “this is no time to be tender of bricks and mortar. Go and fetch the bass-broom, and I will seek for the coal-hammer.”
I found it, after some search, in the pantry. I had taken it there myself, I remember, in the avowed belief that it, and it only, could serve to break into the first gooseberry pie of Chloe's making. I brought it up onto the roof, and with it smashed away the bricks and cement till I had a two-foot embrasure in the back parapet. Then I paused. A moment's silence full of concentrated reflection broke as I said, “Wife of my heart, to think that quite by accident you have married a mechanical genius!”
Then we went to find the spade. With it we dug clay from the banks of one of the little streams which feed our moat. I transported it in the wheelbarrow, always through the rain, to the scene of action, and we raised it to the roof by a cord and the waste-paper basket. With it I built a dam round my embrasure. Then again I paused in Napoleonic meditation, and then—
“The dust-pan, beloved,” I said, looking down on my wife's pink, rain-wet face.
Then I knocked over the last three inches at the bottom of my embrasure. The water from within my dam rushed out down the face of the house—behind the dam lay the tank of water, but my dam held firm.
“And now a broom-handle, soul of my soul—or, I'll tell you what, that garden rake we've never used, and some clothes-line.”
I spliced the dust-pan's handle at right angles to the handle of the rake, and laid this last across the embrasure. The parapet held its ends securely, and the dust-pan, face downward, projected itself out through the opening. I made all fast with clay and then called Chloe to come up the step-ladder and share with me the triumphant moment when my dam should be broken down and my new dust-pan-cum-rake water-shoot come into play. One's wife should share one's joys as well as one's sorrows, I said.
The ingenious contrivance, which I thrilled to have found myself capable of devising, acted perfectly. I kicked my dam to pieces, and the imprisoned water behind rushed impetuously through the embrasure, and, directed by the trusty dust-pan, fell in a cataract a yard and a half from the house, to meander away harmlessly along the gravel path. I helped the flowing tide with the bass-broom, and all the while the rain splashed and spun and sputtered on mackintosh and bared heads. When the leads held but half an inch of water I strengthened the dust-pan and rake with clay, and we went indoors.
The white parlor was unspeakably wet—but the water no longer dripped from the roof.
We mopped again, dried and dressed, and did our ordinary house-work. Then the sun came out. We took cushions and rugs onto the balcony, and fell asleep. We slept till late in the afternoon. Then I went to fetch a plumber. He came, many days later, cleared the wastepipes, and sent me in a bill for £2 17 s. shillings 7 d. pence This was the first charge on the legacy we had received from my uncle.
The second was made by the inspector of the water company. He compelled us to put in new patent taps all over the house. This cost £7 9s. 3d.; and when a grand-maternal government came down on us about the question of sinks and overflow-pipes—Chloe, in my absence, had the misfortune to cringe before its minion—the matter ended in a bill of £29 19s. 11d.
Then I said: “Chloe, ruin stares us in the face. When we lived in the Bandbox—”
“Yes, I know,” she interrupted, “but there's such a lot to do here.”
“The 'ouse is too large and the work too 'eavy,” I quoted.
“It isn't that, but everything's so large,” she said. “Why, it takes me two hours to do the flowers, and they must be done three times a week at least.”
“We must go flowerless, Chloe, or seek the refuge of the neighboring workhouse. Now, in the Bandbox—”
“Yes, I know,” she said again. “Oh, Len, don't scold—it's horrid of you!”
Remorselessly I pursued my advantage, for Chloe seemed to be in a yielding mood.
“In the Bandbox—” I began, but she caught me by the shoulders and shook me and took the words out of my mouth.
“In the Bandbox,” she said, “I worked and you worked. And now we don't either of us work a bit more than we can help. And I know why it is, too—we've both found out how interesting other things are. You'd rather chop wood or clean the boots than write your nasty, dull articles and stories, and I'd rather put up shelves and arrange flowers than draw silly pictures of idiotic people for imbecile magazines. We're both demoralized by—what do you call it?—the joy of life. I hate work. I wish it was dead!”
“Don't you call sweeping and scrubbing and cooking work?”
She hesitated, then: “No,” she cried, defiantly, “it isn't. Work is what you hate doing, and have to do for your living. Anything else is play—you know it is!”
“My gentle playfellow, we must work—either here, in our own Red House, or in the yellow brick mansion provided by a tender country for its more obvious failures. The Red House or the Union—which is it to be?”
“There's Uncle James's two hundred,” she said, with a mutinous glance.
“Chloe, Chloe,” I said, “I speak more in sorrow than in anger. In the Bandbox—yes, I insist on my right to mention that hallowed spot as often as I choose—you went to town twice a week to wring remunerative orders for illustrations from the flinty hearts of editors. You have often explained to me that to be on the spot is the thing. The work is given to the people who look after it. How often have you been to London since my birthday? Once—and that was the day when you went to the registry-office and brought back the fiend who burned the bottom out of the kitchen kettle.”
She hung her head and said I was just as bad.
“I know it, but I am a practical reformer. Reforms personally attended to. Brush my frockcoat, please, if you have any idea where it is, and my high hat, if you can find it. I am going to town this afternoon. In my absence I expect you to finish your illustration for the Lady's Battalion—the one where the duchess is discharging her butler for shaving in the boudoir, and leaving his shaving-brush on the marble console-table.”
“You're not nice. You know it is a humble companion refusing a duke's offer of marriage. He does look like a footman, I know; her arm is all wrong, and his legs are hideously out of drawing. Legs are so difficult to do, especially in clothes. We never had models in trousers at the Slade School—”
“Ah, these art-schools!” I said. “Now find that frock-coat, my Michaela Angelica, and speed the parting reformer.”
“I think I saw it once in the dresser drawer,” she said, dreamily. “If you'd seen it you'd have put it away. Len, talking of shaving-brushes, how is it I used to be so tidy in the Bandbox, and you not, and now you're tidier than I am?”
“It is your influence,” said I.
“And the other's mine?”
“Well,” I answered, “when two people are moderately fond of each other they do teach each other things, don't they?”
“Then you've corrupted me?”
“And you've redeemed me, or are redeeming. When we've quite converted each other we can begin again and change back. But the coat, and the hat. I must shave, and there's only just time to catch the 11.32. For the sake of our home, for the sake of our future, for the peace of our domestic existence, Chloe, do try to find that hat and that coat!”
The hat was all right, but the coat was full of creases. It was not in the dresser drawer, after all, but on the bottom shelf of the oak side-board, and I had to iron it before I could dream of putting it on. Chloe told me how to do it, but she owned that I did it far better than she could have done it herself. My best boots were mislaid, too, as it happened, and, before I had discovered them in a corner of the bare drawing-room, I had missed the 11.32. I went up by the 12.40, however, and in the train I wondered to myself how it was that Chloe, who in the Bandbox had kept all in so neat an array, was now growing more untidy than I in my most reckless moods had ever been. It was a problem, and I bent myself to it as the train whirled me through green pastures outlined with elm-trees and hawthorn hedges, then through villas, red and self-consciously trim, with their neat gardens, geranium-flushed, calceolaria-gilded—neat as a prize map at a first-class high-school. The problem did not resolve itself. It was not till the train was rushing through a wilderness of yellow brick houses, all alike, all soot-begrimed, all standing, with their bits of blackened garden, their stunted flowers, their carefully trained snippets of creeper, for lives full of the courageous struggle of man's innate love of beauty against the iron of environment, the crippling of the accident of birth, the handicap of hereditary submission to the undeserved darkening of life, that I began to see the answer to my question.
In our first home—the Bandbox, the little nest that had held us at our first mating—Chloe had struggled to reproduce, and had reproduced, on a microscopic scale, and with the aid of a woman servant more or less tractable, the habits and methods learned in her mother's house in Bedford. There were rules, and she followed them. I for my part had met the new rules as part of a new and delightful comedy, wherein my wife was heroine. At the same time I had felt no urgent need for altering the habits of years spent in chambers, at the mercy of an uncomplaining and systematically dishonest laundress. But when the Bandbox—I paid it the tribute of a perfunctory sigh, even in my railway-carriage solitude—when the dear Bandbox was left behind, and we entered the Red House, we entered, too, on a new life—a primitive existence where law was not. The rules Chloe had learned in Bedford as to the duties of servants and the routine of domestic life were now inapplicable, since we had no servant, and consequently no recognized routine. We were in the position of folk cast upon a desert island (I mean an uninhabited one, but the phraseology, as the instinct, of boyhood survives). And here we had suddenly changed parts. The chart of custom by which Chloe had steered in Bandbox days had been reft from her. She had nothing left but delightful, genuine impulses towards beauty—the arrangement of flowers, the fixing of shelves, and the deep, eternal instinct to satisfy the cravings of hunger in herself and hers—me. I, on the other hand, being face to face with a new problem, met it, man fashion, with a new solution. I perceived that order alone could make our life in the Red House possible. As the train steamed over the bridge one practical conclusion came as the result of my meditations. Chloe must have a servant.
I saw several editors, received a commission to write a series of articles on foreign politics, and a short story of strong domestic interest. Then I stood at the corner by the Mansion House in a meditation so deep as to provoke the amused and contemptuous scrutiny of my fellows, and at last, just as a small boy was murmuring at my elbow, “Makin' up your mind whether you'll be prime-minister or not? Well, take your time, sir; it's worth thinkin' over,” I hailed a 'bus and was borne away by it. I went straight to Mrs. May's registry-office in Tottenham Court Road. The ladies who attended to my needs seemed to me to have the most perfect manners in the world. So well did they act for me that in half an hour I had engaged an amiable general servant, who was to come on the next Monday “as ever was.”
“Now look here,” I said to her, “you mustn't expect our house to be like any one else's. We're not in the least like any one else. We live in a very large house”—her plump face fell—“but we only use a few rooms. Your mistress will help you a bit, and you can go out one evening a week and every Sunday, and you can have your friends to see you any evening”—her face brightened—“but no young men, unless they come by twos—see? My wife and I will both help you, and if you help us we shall all be perfectly jolly. What do you think? Would you like to try?”
I could see the smile Mrs. May was trying to conceal, and I felt a tremor of doubt. Perhaps, after all, it did not do to treat servants as though they were of the same flesh and blood as one's self.
The girl hesitated, looked doubtfully at me, I smiled at her in my best manner, and she smiled back heartily, and as it seemed to me without mental reservations.
“Well, sir,” she said, “we can but try.”
So that was settled. I felt the warm point of triumph which punctuates the career of the born organizer.
“Monday, then,” said I; “and send your box by Carter Paterson.” And with that I left well alone, and went back to Cannon Street via the Twopenny Tube.
I had to wait half an hour for a train. On the platform was the usual dingy, mixed crowd of clerks, type-writing girls, art students, and City men, and among them, her red hair shining at me down the length of the gloomy platform, a woman's figure that I knew. Her dainty dress of muslin, sown with little bunches of violets, her charming hat, her perfect gloves and shoes—these alone might not have thrust her identity on me. Thank Heaven, more than one Englishwoman wears pretty muslin gowns and picture-hats, and has gloves and shoes that fit her. It was the set of her shoulders, the poise of her head, the modest, graceful self-possession of her attitude that made me bold to step behind her, and, without even a sight of her face, to murmur over her shoulder and into the prettiest ear—almost—in the world, “Yolande!”
She turned in a flash, and her face came to me in that dull place like a gleam of sunlight in a cloudy day.
“How unexpected you are,” I said, “and how very, very like the most beautiful kind of French fashion-plate.”
“I was going down to see Chloe—and you. I have got a bag somewhere,” she said. “I am pretty, aren't I? I got this gown in Paris.”
“That's what I like about you!”
“The only thing?”
“The chief, just now. You don't think old clothes rhyme necessarily with old friends. There's just time for a cup of tea—come. And then for the Red House. We shall find Chloe in rags, clearing out the scullery. You don't know—or rather you do, perfectly well—what a sight for sore eyes you'll be to her.”
My prophecy was fulfilled. My wife opened the door to us.
“Yolande!” she cried, “I didn't know you were back!”
“No more did I, till yesterday,” said Yolande.
“Chloe!” I cried, with proper severity, “have you done that drawing of the footman and the duchess? Your face is extremely dirty!”
She looked at me with that disarming blink of soft lashes for the sake of which the harshest of recording angels would risk his situation.
“I've been cleaning out the kitchen,” she said—“it's lovely now. Yolande, come and take your things off. He'll make the tea and set the table. He's quite domestic now—aren't you, Benedick?”
“Yes, Beatrice,” I said; “and there's a large black on your respectable ear—the right one.”
“The better to hear with, my dear.”
“And why are your hands so extremely grimy?” I returned, capping the quotation.
“The better to slap you with!” she cried, the action rhyming with the word, and fled.
She came down to tea all white muslin and lace and pink ribbons. “It's Yolande's fault,” she said. deprecatingly. “I hate being smart myself. It's so unsuitable to our position. Don't look at me like that!”
Throughout tea I could look at nothing else. Yolande is a witch. How else could she have known that in these weeks of happy, hard work I had vaguely missed something, somehow, and had never guessed till now that it was my wife's beauty, so unadorned, and still so dear, that had fretted me with the unconscious desire to see it once more fitly clothed?
The evening was a festival. Yolande played Chopin to us in the dim, empty drawing-room, and if I did hold my wife's hand the while, Yolande did not mind, for she was used to us. Chloe showed us the duchess and footman drawing, and indeed the duchess's arm was hopelessly wrong, and the footman's legs things to weep over. We drank ginger-ale, always with us the outward expression of hilarity, and, as the evening waned, sang comic songs. When Yolande had gone to bed, in the room got ready for the servants who never came, I caught my wife by both hands.
“Madam,” said I, “why did you never tell me how pretty you looked in pink ribbons?”
“I didn't think you cared for ribbons,” she said; “besides, it's all Yolande's fault.”
“To-morrow morning,” said I, “I shall kiss Yolande for this.”
Chloe looked at me. “You may,” she said. “I don't think she'd like it, but you may. Only don't do it while I'm there, because it might make me jealous.”
“What, Chloe in pink ribbons jealous of Yolande in violet muslin? I might as well be jealous of the crossing-sweeper when you smile at him and give him pennies.”
“And aren't you?” said she. “You would be, if you were a really nice husband. But I'll tell Yolande you said she was like a crossing-sweeper. And she wouldn't let you kiss her, anyway!”
“What do you bet?”
“If she did it would only be to please me! And if you did it would only be to tease me. No, you can't tease me!” She paused, then—“And, Len,” she said, “Yolande's too dear to have silly jokes made about her, even by you and only to me, or even to you and only by me.”
“And you're too dear,” I said, with my face against the pink ribbons, “to be teased, even if I could compass it. Besides, madam, I have been guilty of a crime—worse, an error in taste. I might be a hair-dresser's apprentice chaffing his sweetheart of the drapery department. Forgive me—I am a little mad to-night.”
She pushed me away till she could look in my eyes.
“Len,” she said, “how awful it would have been if I had married any one else. There is no one else who understands everything. But why did you? You never made jokes about kissing other people before!”
“It is detestable,” I said, “and it's no excuse to repeat that it was only because I am so happy. And yet it's true. Am I forgiven?”
Now what made me talk that nonsense? And suppose Chloe had laughed at it or, on the other hand, had taken it seriously, where should we have been? Now, Heaven be praised for the gift of understanding. If Chloe had done, had looked, anything but what she did do and look—But Chloe is Chloe, and, thank God, mine.
Yolande stayed with us three days. The rainbow delights of our new house seemed newly dyed when we displayed them to her appreciative eyes. And I felt a new impulse to work, now that Chloe had some one to bear her company as she gathered flowers, rearranged furniture, or struggled, face all aglow, against the fiendish arts of the kitchen range.
I wrote half my “story of strong domestic interest,” and then stuck fast. There was a scene where the hero, on the point of marriage with a respectable and admired heiress, the friend of childhood's hour, sees, as he walks up the church to his bridal, the face of his old love, whom he had thought dead. This scene wanted something besides smartness. It wanted fire, passion, delicacy of handling, strength of grasp. And these qualities, strange to say, eluded me. I told my woes, and received from Chloe and Yolande sympathy, but no aid.
On that third moonlight evening, when we sat out on the grass, round the sun-dial, and Yolande sang Spanish and Pyrenean songs to the tinkle of Chloe's guitar, I almost seemed to surprise in myself the force to grapple with that scene and get the better of it; but when they had gone to bed and I sat face to face with my type-writer, the force shrivelled to a very agony of conscious incompetence. I wrote three abject sentences, and went to bed hopeless.
Next morning I took Yolande to a cricket match, and in the evening she left us.
“I'll come again in a fortnight if you'll have me,” she said, “but now I must put on my soberest frock and a hat that would make you weep, and interview parents who want to provide their girls with a complete outfit of up-to-date culture, cheap.”
We went up to the little country station, bareheaded, ungloved, to the scandal of the porters and the station-master, and waved our farewells as the train bore her away. Chloe's clean handkerchief had a great hole in it, which she never noticed till too late, and then we went back, she to house-work, and I to my story. I had left it at page thirty-one; it stood now at page fifty-nine.
The story was finished. I read the pages rapidly. The story was good, very good. All the fire and passion and force I had longed for and had known to be necessary were here. The story began tamely, and ended in vivid and triumphant drama.
“Chloe!” I called.
She came, a dish-cloth in her hand and apron round her waist.
“Some one has finished the story. Read it.”
She read it slowly.
“Is it good?” she asked.
“Of course it is. But did you— Who did it?”
“No, of course not!”
“It must have been the ghost,” she said. Then she blinked at me with long lashes, and laughed.
I laughed too.
“The ghost be it!” I said, but I read in her laughing eyes the word that sprang to my own lips—“Yolande!”