The Red House/Chapter 5
I WAS writing in the red-and-white marble hall that morning—I really had made a beginning on the first of the six stories. It was not a good beginning, but there it was. I had reached page three, and knew that unless any domestic event more than commonly cataclysmic befell that day I should see the sun set on twelve pages of laborious type-writing.
The walls of the marble hall are thick, and the windows look to the northeast, so that even when the sun is turning the garden to fine gold, and the westerly rooms to a burning, fiery furnace, the hall remains cool as a cave. Through the open door I could see the feathery flowers of the Spanish chestnut; through one window I could see the copper-beech, wine-dark, and through the other a gap in the avenue showed me a square of blue sky backing a single pillar of Normandy poplar, straight, slender, self-possessed. The garden was full of bird noises and the faint rustle of leaves. In the kitchen sounded the clink of silver—of electro-plate, to be more accurate—and the chime of china. The tapping of my Remington hardly did more than underline a silence which it might have broken to an ear that loved its monotonous music less than did mine.
The hall is the great highway of the Red House. Chloe passed through now and then with duster and broom, with an armful of blue-frilled cushions, with a folded rug, with something that rattled in a covered waste-paper basket. She looked at me, and I knew she was wondering why I did not ask her what she was playing at. But I forbore, because I had reached the fourth page, and I dared not tempt fate by pausing to enjoy more deeply the charm of a life my right to which I ought, without doubt, even at that moment to be earning. Besides, I feared to break the spell. When once the fatal third page is passed fluency holds her own against ordinary attacks. Not against Chloe, if one allows her to begin to explain a new idea. Yet my fingers worked more slowly, and my full stops gave me time to count forty instead of four, as they tell us to do at school, just because I could not either resist or understand a growing impression that my wife did not want me to ask any questions. Had I felt that it would please her to be questioned. I could have wrestled with the definite temptation to please her, and have thrown it. As it was, my phrases grew feebler, my narrative less convincing. I had to clutch with both hands at my vanishing interest in my story; and when the struggle was over I found that I had complicated the career of my hero with two wives, a dissipated youth, and a proposed highway robbery. And my hero was intended to shine in a milieu of “strong domestic interest.”
I gathered the pages together; it was lunchtime. The blue and gold of the morning were overclouded with thick gray; the sky looked like the canvas roof of a travelling-circus tent. A few first drops made splashes on the door-step big as five-shilling pieces. Then down came the rain—straight, strong, masterful.
“I knew it was going to rain,” said Chloe. “How good it is to hear it! Don't you feel almost as glad of it as if you were a tree? Fancy standing up to it and holding out all your leaves to feel the splash of it!”
“It makes work easier,” I said. “Now you can't entice me away from my stories and tempt me to waste the golden hours in the garden.”
“That's the worst of this house,” she said—“everything inside it urges to industry. The white parlor is so proper, I never sit in it without feeling that I ought to be doing open-work embroidery, if not working a sampler. What heaps of work we shall do in the winter when there's no dear garden to tempt us!”
It was Chloe who talked just then. I was trying to keep a few tentacles fixed on my story, and I was determined that I would ask no questions. After lunch I said:
“It's not ready yet,” said she, rising. Then, “Len,” she said, abruptly, “I've got something to show you.”
“Not more rabbits?” I said, for only the week before it had been six baby rabbits that she had to show, found in our orchard, and painfully fed by Chloe, with the finger of a white kid glove dipped in warm milk. The rabbits had not lived.
“No, no—how can you remind me of that? Come.”
She led me up the oak stairs, along the gallery, and up a further narrower flight. We were among the nest of deserted rooms on the second floor. Chloe threw open a door, pulled me through, and shut it quickly.
It was a large room, swept and cleaned; three long windows, curtained with cascades of Virginia-creeper, filled it with soft green twilight.
There were no ornaments, there were no easy-chairs, there were no flowers and no carpets. Only one Persian rug on the floor, and a great divan, twelve or fourteen feet long, against one of the walls. On the shelves in the recesses by the fireplace were some thirty books, a large deal table held a solid inkstand, a smaller deal table held a brass tray with cups and tins. Two Windsor chairs stood against the big table.
“Now I'll make coffee,” she said, turning to the brass tray.
“Coffee seems very flat. Is it possible that you aren't going to satisfy my raging curiosity? What is this room?”
“It's the loafery,” she said. “In the winter, as you say, we shall need a place to loaf in.”
“I didn't say so.”
“Yes, you did. Try the divan.”
I did. It crackled when I sat down, but it was very comfortable.
“Chloe,” I said, “come here!”
“I can't. I'm making the coffee.” And indeed she had lighted the spirit-lamp to that end.
“Do you know that you are blushing as though you had been detected in pocket-picking, or in some generous act? Why are you embarrassed? Why are you shy? Why do you screen yourself behind a spirit-lamp? Why have you done this? And why don't you rush into my arms as a dutiful wife should, and confess how you came to have such a beautiful idea?”
“You do like it, then?”
“Like it? I protest, by all my household gods, that if I had been a bachelor inhabiting this house, thus, and in no other way, should I have furnished my living-room!”
“Why ‘if you were a bachelor’?”
“Because my wife likes pretty things. She likes green Flemish pots, and brass warming-pans, and Sheffield-plate candlesticks, and flowers; and, as a husband, I like what she likes. Chloe, why are there no flowers here?”
She pointed to the green screen of leaves at the window.
I got up and began to walk up and down.
“You're a witch,” said I. “How did you know exactly what I liked? Here is space—nothing to knock down! And form—no curtains to break the fine lines of these old windows. And color—look at the green light; it's like a fairy palace lighted by glowworm-lamps, especially when that gleam of sunlight came! Chloe, how did you know? Is it because you love me very much?”
“Not in the least,” she said, briskly. “It's because—Len, don't laugh at me—I knew how to do the room because it's what I like, too!”
She had made the coffee and poured it out. Then she came and took my arm. Outside the rain pattered pleasantly on the green leaves and on the roof of the balcony.
“That's why I felt silly and why I blushed—only, of course, I never did blush. I seem to be turning into somebody else, and perhaps you won't like me so much. Or I'm half myself and half somebody else, and I don't know which half is really you. It didn't cost anything, hardly,” she went on, irrelevantly. “The divan is only orange-boxes filled with straw, and covered with those old green curtains—you know—the ones that were so faded. And the table is out of the kitchen—the two shelves that pull out are quite enough there, Mary says. And that's all.”
We sat down among the blue-frilled cushions. “I bought the stuff for these, of course—the green twirlies on them just match the old curtains,” she said. “And that really is all.”
“Honest Injun?” I said, severely.
“Oh,” she said, tossing her head, “if you think I really did it to please you—”
“But tell me, then,” I pleaded.
“I don't know,” she said, confusedly, resting her elbows on her knees and her head in her hands. “You see, the Red House is so big. It's like Shakespeare or Goethe, and the Bandbox was like Savoy opera. And I hate mixing things up. And then it is so awful to have to dust things! Wasn't it Thoreau who threw away his curios because he couldn't be bothered to dust them? And Mary's going, and I thought if one could have a room with just only what one needed—a lounge, a table, two chairs—we can put more books if you like. But I thought—if you would—we needn't use it only for loafing; we could bring anything we liked here—work or anything; but I thought if you would agree never to leave anything here, but take everything away when we'd done it, whatever it was, then we should always have one room tidy—at least the untidiness would never be more than one day deep. It's letting the litter of the days overlap that makes everything so hopeless. And I thought, perhaps, I should get some work done here.”
“You are a genius,” I said, “and I am Prince Fortunate. I only regret one thing, and that is, that I did not think of it myself.”
“If you had you wouldn't have done it,” she said, quickly—“that's just it. Because you thought I—and so I did—but— Anyway, you're pleased?”
“The odd thing is that I think I must be two people, because if I had heaps of servants I should have the green pottery and brass and things in every room but this. Len, since we came to live here everything seems different. I feel as if I were swimming for my life in a great sea—nothing's the same as I used to think it was.”
“Only us. I wonder if you understand—”
“My dear,” I said, “we've tumbled out of our doll's house into the real world.”
“Oh no, this isn't the real world—it's too nice.”
“Into a new world, then—a world where we have to think for ourselves and judge things on their merits. We're like Columbus, madam. The really important thing is to find out for one's self, without any sort of mistake, what are the things one cares about—the things that matter—”
“And the things one doesn't care about—those are much more important—the things one has just because other people have them—at least, if that's not the reason I don't know what is. And we've so much to learn, and there are so many good qualities I know nothing about. Don't you feel very poor and unimportant, Len? And very, very ignorant? I do.”
“I know one or two important things,” said I, for I never encourage Chloe in the moods of humility that end in self-reproaches, “and I have one or two unimportant possessions—the Red House, and a wife, and a loafery. See, the sun is coming out in earnest; how glorious it is through the green! Oh, it's a good world, when all's said and done! How thick the creeper grows. What does it hang by? Why, there are bars! This must have been the nursery.”
“Yes,” said Chloe, leaning her chin on my shoulder, as she stood behind me.
“It would make a splendid nursery, too,” said I.
“Yes,” said my wife again, still with her chin on my shoulder. “Len, I feel very silly indeed, to-day; I should like to say something stupid.”
“You couldn't offer me a greater novelty.”
She slipped her hand into my arm, and laid her cheek against my coat sleeve.
“You know you thought it was so mad of me wanting to come to the Red House, but I saw these bars that very first day, and I thought how nice it would be for them to have a beautiful place to remember when they grow up. Not to remember the people next door, and organ-grinders, and gritty dust, and pavements, but quietness and big green trees and lawns, and this grave old house. Don't you think it would be nice for them?”
“For them?” I said, not because I did not understand.
“For—if ever we had any children, Len.”
Some day, if we live, we shall be old and gray, feeble, and look back with dim eyes along a lane of years; and even then that good moment will stand out golden and perfect—the moment when, strong in youth and love and hope, we stood together, looking out together through the nursery bars and the green creeper towards the years to come. The summer day when, if our eyes were dim, it was with the dew of morning, when, if our hands trembled, it was because they held such full measure of life's good things.
Chloe raised her head suddenly. “I told you I was silly,” she said, “but since I am silly I'll say one silly thing more. I don't think any one in this world was ever so happy as I am. And when I get worried and cross, you know—Oh, why am I saying all the things that you know perfectly, and that one doesn't say? You must get back to your work, and I'll try to do that drawing of the duke. And to-night we'll have a consultation about Mary. Yolande shall advise us.”
That evening when Yolande and my wife were deep in a discussion on the way in which a really right-minded dressmaker should cut a skirt, I strolled into the new room, and there on the table was Chloe's drawing of the duke and the humble companion. The duke's arm was wrong, so were his Grace's legs. Pencil and India-rubber lay near. I fingered an H.B. absently for a moment, and presently found myself seated at the table, elbows squared, head bent, working up the duke to the semblance of something human. I always took the drawing prize in my youth—nothing to boast of, since, proverbially, it falls to “the greatest muff in the school”—and at Oxford I had taken a keen pleasure in caricaturing those who sit in the seats of the mighty, and in idealizing those who stand behind the counters of the pastry-cook. Also, in the days when I dreamed legal dreams in the Temple, and spent my idle days in the law courts, I had made constant use of the excellent quills and stationery provided by the state, to draw portraits of the leading legal lights. And I could see the shapes of things. I knew how the arm should go. I knew also how a man's clothes hang when he is in them, which Chloe never could grasp. So I rubbed out most of her duke, and put in a duke of my own—quite a flesh-and-blood creature, and a great deal too good for Chloe's presentment of the humble companion, with whose carefully arranged draperies I did not venture to meddle. I touched up the background a little, correcting the wild perspective of a console-table—an article of furniture which had apparently struck Chloe as ducal—slipped the drawing under its sheet of tissue-paper, and went off to confess to my wife what I had done.
But I found her up to her ears in sleeves and yokes, and it seemed simpler to make Yolande play the piano in the great drawing-room, and sit beside Chloe in the twilight, and think of many things, only now and then wondering vaguely how she would meet the discovery of my presumptuous iniquity.
We had agreed that we would allow Miss Richborough an evening's repose—a night's rest—before laying upon her the burden of our cares—our drunken tenant and our angel servant, so soon to be translated to a sphere far from our deep need of her. And the evening passed pleasantly enough. Yolande had brought half a dozen sketch-books with her, filled with little notes of her Italian tour. She really draws rather well; and even when her drawings are incorrect, they are amusing. Chloe and I laughed and criticised, but no one said anything worth recording. The really noteworthy remark was made next morning by Chloe.
“Oh, Len,” she said, coming to me, with the duke and the humble companion in her hands, “look what she—I mean, look what the ghost has done! Oh, what a clever ghost to be able to draw and write better—I mean as well as we can!”
I would not have believed that she could be so deceived. Yolande's drawing is absolutely different from mine; she has a sense of humor, but she is wholly lacking in any real feeling for line. Yet Chloe could believe that my duke was Yolande's work! I told myself that I felt humbled, but really I felt a proud, if chastened, indignation.
“It is indeed a ghost in a thousand!” I said. “Shall you send the drawing in?”
“Of course!” she said, opening wide eyes at me. “And I only wish the ghost would illustrate that hateful fairy tale for the Children's Globe.”
I determined that the ghost should do this, too, or I would know the reason why.
“And now,” said Chloe, “we must hold a council of war.”
We took Yolande and showed her our own new room—our loafery—and then we asked her whether she would prefer to hold the council there, or in the white parlor where her settle and bureau were, or under the cedars where the hammock hung, and where the grass would be dry in spite of yesterday's rain. We waited breathlessly for her answer. She stood at the door of our new room, and looked round it, an appreciation in her eyes before which our own dropped. Then she said:
“Not here, anyway; this is your very own room. I should feel as uncomfortable in it as I should in your boots, Len, or in Chloe's gold-rimmed eye-glasses. I vote for the cedars.”
We each said, “Nonsense!” but we went down the stairs, each holding one of her kind hands. No one but Yolande would have understood. I wondered whether she had noticed the window-bars.
So it was under the cedars that we pointed out to Yolande the overflowing measure of our personal embarrassments. The migration of Mary, the weed-choked garden, the impossible tenants, the empty cottages which our one experience made us fear any thought of letting. And Yolande listened with the deepest sympathy, and the shadows of the cedar dappled her green gown and stole the light from her red-gold hair.
“Can you do anything?” said Chloe at last, desperately breaking through Miss Richborough's guard of noncommittal condolence.
“I suppose I could offer to stay and help you to wash and spin, and bake and brew,” she said, “but I'm not effectual. And, besides, it would be like cutting firewood with a razor.”
“Your modesty was always your strong point, my dear Razor,” said Chloe.
“A razor is not fitted for chopping firewood,” said Yolande, demurely, “and it is fitted for other things. If you cut firewood with it it can't do its own proper work that it was made for. And if I may just hit out once brutally and straight from the shoulder, I will relieve my mind and not hurt you very much.”
“Strike here,” said my wife, with her hands to her heart.
“May I? Thanks, awfully. Well, then, you all-round people, who can turn your hand to anything, you're always chopping firewood with razors; you're always diverting your energies from their proper channel, and doing a dozen people's work indifferent well, because you haven't time to do it properly. Len cleans boots and door-steps and candlesticks, and comes to his real work with only half a heart; Chloe can't do her drawing comfortably, because she has sweeping and dusting and cooking to see to. A really reasonable Len, a truly conscientious Chloe, would work at its own trade, and hire other people to work at theirs. I have spoken.”
“Poor fox!” said Chloe, softly; “were the nasty grapes sour, then?”
“I will not pretend,” Miss Richborough said, severely, “to misunderstand your allusion. I am not an accomplished sweeper. I dust ill and rarely. When I wash up I always break a cup or a plate. I dare say I should clean a boot with whitening, or a front door-step with Globe polish.”
“And yet, by your own confession, you love to have your finger in your neighbor's pies.”
“Exactly; I like to do what I am fitted for. I can adjust my neighbor's pies better than any professional pastry-cook. And adjusting pies doesn't interfere with my regular work—that's the point.”
“But we like doing things in the house,” Chloe ventured.
“Don't I know it? Oh, you needn't trouble to convince me of your depravity. I stick to what I said. All these irons in the fire—yes, even that contemptible little bit of garden that you've weeded—all take off from the energy you ought to spend on your writing and drawing. You are both exceedingly naughty children!”
“How,” I ventured, “in these circumstances would a really good child behave?”
“It would not bite blades of grass, to begin with,” she said, “when it was being lectured for its own good. And then look at your ruffianly tenant. When one lets houses one employs an agent, and he insists on references. He knows his business.”
Chloe looked appealingly at me, and I threw a daisy at her, and said:
“We were certainly wrong there.” Her eyes thanked me for the “we,” and Yolande went on:
“Then as to servants, it would pay you to have a really good one, if you had to pay her thirty or forty pounds a year. Don't open your pretty eyes at me, Chloe—I mean it. You've always got far more work than you can do, as things are now. If you really stick to your work you could well afford the wages of a paragon.”
“Puzzle: to find the paragon,” said I.
“Ah! that's where I come in. I can't wash dishes—anyway, I won't. But if you'll give me a free hand I'll find you a servant as good as this Mary of yours. I'll bet my Omar Khayyam, and it's a first edition, you know, against your Shropshire Lad!”
“Done!” I said, instantly. “And what about the degraded Prosser?”
“One thing at a time,” said Yolande. “The question of the tenantry must stand over till we've settled the problem of domestic service. Ah, don't talk to me any more! My brain is teeming with the most fascinating ideas, as brilliant as practicable. Let me alone while my schemes develop.” She leaned back in the hammock among the yellow cushions, and in three minutes she was fast asleep. Chloe and I stole away, through the garden to the seat under the quince-tree.
“We are like babes in the wood,” she said. “I wonder whether she'll succeed.”
“She always succeeds,” I said, shortly; “it's her métier. Ours, I suppose, is that of these same babes—helplessness, appealing to the pity of all kindly passers-by—and I own that it's not a métier I'm particularly proud of.”
“Yolande isn't every passer-by.”
“Yes, she is,” I said, “every single one.”
“Dear,” said my wife, calmly, “you are very cross, and presently you will be sorry.”
I had not been cross before—at least, I think not; but now, perhaps— I picked an unripe quince and threw it at a blackbird on the ivy. I did not hit the blackbird.
“Seriously,” said Chloe, catching at my hand as it sought another quince, “I think Yolande's right. It's our métier to write and draw, and earn our livings. We can't be clever enough to do everything. Why should we be too proud to let her try to do what we haven't been able to do—get a servant who will stay? You're not really vexed because Yolande said what she did? You know how fond she is of us.”
“I only know I feel contemptible,” I said. “I ought to be able to manage these things for myself.”
“Then shall I tell Yolande not to trouble? Len, how silly you are! What is it?”
“I should have thought it would be more pleasant to you to think you'd married a man, and not a babe in the wood.”
“You were manly enough in the Bandbox, but I didn't know then half how dear you were. Oh, Len! don't you think it's nice to find out all sorts of things together, even—”
“Even our babe-in-the-woodness?”
“Yes, even our limitations. Why should we want to pretend we can do everything? We can do a great many things that Yolande can't do.”
“Yes—wash up, and sweep, and dust.”
“But you like doing them. And we can write and draw.”
“So can—so can the ghost. Dear, the black dog is on my back. You'd better go away and leave me for a bit.”
Now Heaven be blessed for a wife who did not answer that appeal with an, “Oh, darling, surely you don't want to be away from me?”
For one shameful instant I feared it. One does not learn everything about one's wife even in ten married months.
As for Chloe, she kissed my forehead lightly, and without a word walked away down the avenue of nut-trees. I watched her white skirt till the last sway of it against the hollyhocks, and the moment she was out of sight I sprang to my feet and ran after her. I came up with her by the bench of rotting hives where once the bees followed their sweet industry. I caught her arm, and she turned to me with a smile.
“Chloe, Chloe, I've put the nasty black dog up the chimney. I'm the happiest man alive! I'm King of the Universe, and you're Queen! Yolande doesn't belong to the reigning house. Poor Yolande! we can't do less than let her be our vizier.”
I was holding her hands now, and we were looking at each other with that unquenchable amazement which still comes to us at odd moments in life's winding way—amazement that there should be in this world two people so suited to each other as we; and the further wonder at the clemency of a fate which has allowed us to find each other. This, I suppose, is a lover's commonplace. It was our abiding marvel.
During the next week Yolande worked a good deal in her room, bicycled a little with me, went to town once or twice with Chloe, and entirely won the heart of Mary, who stated publicly that she would lie down for Miss Yo to walk on if it would please her. Twice in that week the ghost walked. It finished a story for me, and I wished it would mind its own business. But I had been positively shocked to find myself capable of a feeling towards Yolande that was very like jealousy, and just because I knew deep in my heart that the ghost's work was better than my own, I felt that it was equally impossible for me to insist on an explanation, or to refuse to send in the ghost's work as mine. I had given away my ignoble secret to Chloe now, and I could not dare to sink further in her eyes. So I sent in the ghost's work, and the editor was delighted. The pricking of that same jealousy stung me to correct two of Chloe's drawings and to originate a third. It was balm to me to hear Chloe's raptures over the drawings, and to know that she believed them to be the work of Yolande—Yolande, who could not have done anything half so good to save her life.
It was on the evening before Mary's wedding. I had presented to her a neat service of teacups and saucers, and Chloe had embroidered for her a tea-cloth and a collar. I almost think she had sewn tears into the pretty pattern. Mary had thanked me for my gifts and for my heartfelt expressions of grief at parting from her, but it was not till Chloe presented her gifts worked by her own hands that Mary broke down.
“I ain't a-going to leave you, mum,” she sobbed. “Miss Yo she told me not to say nothing, so as to make it a regular surprise for you when I come back. I'm only going for a week along of my Jim to see his father and mother down Marden way, and then I'm coming back. Miss Yo told me you'd told her to arrange what she liked.”
“But your Jim,” said Chloe, aghast, “what will he say?”
“He's only too pleased, mum.”
“Only too pleased? Not to live with his wife?”
“Oh, mum,” said Mary, giggling through her tears, “Miss Yo arranged it all. Him and me is to have all the rooms beyond the kitchen. He's got a beautiful lot of furniture as come to him from his aunt at Canterbury. He won't be in no one's way, mum, being out so much, and I'm to do for you just the same as ever; and I am so glad as never was, for I couldn't abide the notion of leaving you, mum, and you putting roses in my bedroom and all, as if I was the Queen, and now working those things for me with your own pretty hands!”
When I came in a moment later I found Mary and Chloe in each other's arms, and I am not sure but that they were both crying a little.
It was a simple solution, wasn't it? Yet Chloe and I had never thought of it. And I had lost my Shropshire Lad.