The Red House/Chapter 6
MARY'S wedding was to be a quiet one. Her Jim brought a dejected young carpenter with him, to be his “backer,” as he explained, and we all walked up to the church in the village, where I was to give away the bride, while Yolande officiated as bridesmaid. Chloe merely attended, as she explained, to see fair play. The ceremony was fixed for Sunday afternoon, and when we arrived at the church we were somewhat disconcerted to find a large congregation. Mary and Jim had not any desire to hide the light of their love-match under a bushel. “We ain't ashamed of it, mum,” she said, in a hollow whisper, answering Chloe's agonized glance in the church porch. “I've been reading about it in the prayer-book, and it says, ‘In the face of this congregation,’ and that means afore a churchful. We 'ain't got no friends here to ask, so we thought we'd have it done after service, so as to be sure of the congregation anyway.”
The congregation looked at us with interest. There was no mistaking Mary's gray cashmere dress—a wedding-garment, if ever there was one—trimmed with lavish indiscrimination and white cotton lace. And even if the gown had left any room for doubt the orange flowers in her brown hat and in the blue bow at her neck must have enlightened the least observant. Chloe and Yolande, in pale muslins, looked quite as bridal as the bride, and Jim and his “backer” and I each looked uncomfortable enough to have been the bridegroom. The verger recognized us unerringly as the wedding-party, and showed us to a pew near the chancel, where we remained till the service was over. I had faintly hoped that the congregation would be glad to get out—the thermometer must have been about a hundred in the shade—but Mary had judged better than I; not a soul moved, and she was married “in the face of this congregation,” as she had wished and intended.
The clergyman was old and short-sighted—he could not see the orange blossoms, I suppose. At any rate, I found it quite difficult to prevent him from marrying Yolande, in her muslin and Valenciennes and her big white hat with the ostrich feathers, to the backer, whose white buttonhole was, I admit, twice as big and twice as bridal as Jim's.
However, the verger backed me up, and the right couple were married, at last. We all went back to the Red House and drank the health of the happy pair—in Asti, though, not in champagne—because Asti is twice as cheap and twice as nice. At least, Chloe says so.
Then we saw them off at the station. Then we came home and tore off our smart, hot clothes, and got into flannels or muslin wrappers, and got our own tea—at least, Chloe and I did—and drank it under the cedars.
When tea was over, Chloe said, maliciously, “Wouldn't you like to wash up the cups, Yolande?”
“Your cups are, I believe, Spode—or is it only Spode and Copeland? Shall I wash up? I warn you that I cannot answer for my fingers. They lose their grasp if I become interested in my own reflections—or, yes—or in the conversation of others, so it's no use offering to talk to me while I do it. I know my limitations, and I abide by them.”
“I'm not proud of my limitations,” said Chloe.
“No, dear,” Yolande answered, sweetly; “that's because you haven't any. Why don't you get some? They are a great convenience.”
“You speak as though one could decide one's limitations for one's self.”
“And can't one? A clever woman like you—”
“No butter, thanks,” said Chloe.
“—Like you could do anything that silly women can do, and could do any one thing she gave her whole mind to, better than these silly women. But no one can do everything. When you've found that out, and decided what you want to do, you've learned your limitations.”
“You mean,” I said, “that you could wash dishes with the best, and sweep and dust und so weiter, if you only cared to?”
“Of course I could”—Yolande opened her lovely eyes—“I could do anything I gave my mind to. But I haven't a hundred minds to give to a hundred industries. When I was quite a child I declined to be taught to sew. I saw, even then, that one's knowledge of feminine crafts is just a weapon in the hands of the evil one, who lies in wait at every corner to keep one off one's real work. I meant to go to Girton: so when they made me wash up the tea-things, I always dropped something. They soon left off asking me to wash up.”
“How horribly immoral!”
“Not at all. I only enforced my decision by concrete arguments—the only ones my aunt could understand. The secret of success is to know what you want and what you don't want.”
I looked at Chloe—we had said the same thing in almost the same words but the other day.
“Do you suppose,” Yolande went on, “that I should have taken every prize in each form all the way up the school, and then got a scholarship at Girton, if I had allowed myself to be taught to dust the drawing-room and to make my own dresses, and sew on buttons and darn stockings for the boys?”
“I don't know,” said Chloe; “perhaps mathematics take more time than drawing. Anyway, I liked learning the things you despise, and I liked doing them. I liked helping mother. I like playing with my own house.”
“Helping Len—yes—perhaps it would be different. You see, I never had a mother. If I had had, I dare say I should have learned all these arts, just so as to be able to do something for her when she wanted it. But, as it was, I set myself to do a man's work, and I tried to live a man's life—apart from these little worries. And what's more, I succeeded. There's not a feminine trait about me, thank Heaven.”
We all three laughed. Chloe said:
“Take down your pretty hair, Yolande. I want to look at it.”
The wide, lace-ruffled sleeves fell back from her creamy, rounded arms where the gold bangles shone. I could see the diamonds and sapphires and opals of her rings gleaming among the copper-gold of her hair as she drew out the silver filigree-topped hair-pins. Then the coils of bright hair began to fall over the delicate silk muslin of her gown till she stood before us clothed in a glowing mantle that fell below her knees. She threw her long hair back, with a quintessentially feminine gesture, and came and sat beside Chloe on the grass, where her hair curled and coiled on the ground, like swirls of surf on the edge of a sea lit by sunset. We looked at her—bright hair, bright bangles, bright rings, bright eyes—and we said together,
“No feminine traits!”
“That's not a feminine trait,” she answered, elliptically. “Even a man tries to look as nice as he can. It's not much he can do—but he does it. Look at men's ties. They use thousands of them, and nobody ever notices what they wear, any more than any one ever notices whether women wear threes or fours in shoes. Yet most women pinch their feet and their waists.”
“Men notice waists, anyhow,” said Chloe. “If Len sees a girl pinched in so that you wonder she doesn't snap off short, he says, ‘There's a smart girl.’”
“We are wandering from the point,” I said, hastily.
“Which, by-the-way, is that this very evening as ever is I'm off to my club,” said Yolande, briskly. “I will not be taught to do house-work, and I love you both far too much not to fall an easy victim to your arts if I were to see you really in need of help. I can't abjure the creed of a lifetime. My only safety is in flight. When Mary comes back I'll come back, too, if you'll have me. I can't stay here and see the dark side of Mary's honey-moon. And meantime you'll give me leave to let my master-mind play round the question of your horrible tenant. Did you notice his front garden as we came back from church? By-the-way, why did you never tell me your church has a Norman chancel?”
“We didn't know it ourselves,” said Chloe. “You see, we've always been to Westenden church. It's a lovely walk through the woods in the evening. Perhaps among the other things you declined to learn you escaped the knowledge that after you've moved into a new house your first appearance in your parish church is a signal that you are ready for your neighbors to call on you? Well, we didn't want them to call on us.”
“Perhaps they will now, mum, thanking you for your slap about my ignorance of pretty manners.”
“Oh no,” said Chloe, “our appearance there was unofficial. Any one could see that.”
“I'm not sure—but I wish you luck,” said Yolande. “And now I must tear myself away.”
“Selfish thing,” said Chloe.
“Not selfish, sweetheart! Only faithful, in the face of tremendous temptation, to the ideals of a lifetime.”
“When you marry,” said my wife, impressively, “your husband will be a poor little hen-pecked thing.”
“I shall never marry. I never met but one man who was nice enough for a husband, and he was only nice enough for you—not nearly nice enough for me. Now I've involved you both in the ruins of a compliment, and I'll go.”
I own that it was with an invigorating sense of something pleasant promised that I awoke next morning. The feeling deepened as I stole down-stairs and lighted the kitchen fire. Mary—may her honey-moon last her life long!—had dried a little stack of wood and piled it in the wash-house ready for us. I filled the kettle, swept up the hearth, and had finished laying the cloth for breakfast when Chloe appeared.
I do not know which of us most enjoyed the house-work that followed. Chloe loves house-work for its own sake. As she says, it is play, because it is not what one ought to be doing. For myself, I admit that when I see my wife working about the house I experience a more intimate sense of possession even than when I walk with her in the garden, hand in hand, and certainly far deeper than I can ever feel when she is drawing away for dear life to add her share to our income. Theoretically I know how right and proper it is that she should earn money as well as I. Practically I want to earn all the money, and to let her spend it. This is the relic of a barbarous age, and so is the delightful thrill of domestic pleasure with which I see my wife busy about our house. At the same time I like to prove to her that I can sweep and dust and wash up as well as she can, if not better. The only drawback to our happiness that morning was Mary's neatness and cleanness, which left us little or nothing to do. When all her necessary work was done, I noted still a hungry look in Chloe's eye.
“What, Oliver! Asking for more?”
“Yes, Mr. Bumble. I'll get lunch now—and then you must go and write, and I'll put on my very oldest rags and clean out the china-cupboard.”
Her oldest rags were the red-and-white Trouville petticoat and a blue, long-sleeved painting pinafore. I left her with bare feet, and sleeves rolled up to the shoulder, carrying the piles of china into the hall.
“I shall scrub the shelves first,” she said; “you know I've never let Mary touch it—she's never even seen it unlocked—so it's all as black as ink. And then I'll wash the floor, and then I'll wash the china and put it all back after I've cleaned the window.”
“Let me clean the window,” I said.
“No, not for the world. I'm going to enjoy myself. I'm going to play, I am—I'm going to fritter away my intellect, as Yolande says. And you're going to enjoy the dignity of labor, and do what you are really fitted for. Lucky boy!”
“If you taunt me with my chains I won't pull an oar at all in this galley.”
“Where are you going to work?”
“In the loafery. It's the only place where I can even begin to be moderately contented away from you.”
“What a pretty speech! You shall bring me two pails of water for a reward. One hot and one cold. Len, why do you like the loafery so much?”
“I like the bars,” said I, coming nearer to her.
My exercise with broom, mop, and the other implements of domestic industry seemed rather to have brightened my brain than to have dulled it. My story went very well. I had a good plot which Yolande had suggested, and the type-writer clicked merrily. I was in the middle of a fine scene between a baffled company promoter and the simple typist girl who has out witted him on his own ground, when I heard the familiar, long-drawn shriek of the front gate.
“The milk,” I thought. And I also thought that perhaps Chloe would not like to face the milkman barefooted, so I went down. I went softly, for I happened to be wearing rubber-soled tennis shoes. In the gallery overlooking the hall I paused, for I heard a voice that was neither Chloe's nor the milkman's—a thin, mean, narrow, doubtfully pitched voice.
It came from the front doorstep. In the middle of the hall stood the stack of china shining with soap and water. Half the floor of the hall was cleaned, the other half partially wetted. A pail of brown-colored water stood by the table, and Chloe, her bare feet splashed with that same brown water, and a scrubbing-brush in her hand, advanced towards the voice. The voice said,
“Is your mistress at home?”
There was an instant of hesitation. Then I saw by the set of my wife's shoulders that she scorned to accept the chance of escape.
“Will you come in?” she said, cheerfully. “Mind the pail. I can't shake hands with you, because of the scrubbing-brush.”
The woman had not offered to shake hands. She came in—a face and figure that matched the voice—a bonnet and mantle that matched the face and the figure. There were black beads about her.
Chloe ostentatiously dusted a chair with a corner of her pinafore, and handed it to her visitor. Then she stood leaning against the table, and looked at the other woman calmly. I ought to have gone down. I ought not to have left Chloe to bear alone this call, the first fruits of our appearance in our parish church the day before. But the picture charmed me. Chloe's grace and ease, the other woman's stiffness and embarrassment, the half-cleaned floor, the scrubbing-brush, the china. I hugged myself on it all.
I could see the caller conscientiously trying her best to keep her eyes off Chloe's bare feet, and off the scrubbing-brush, and all the rest of it. And I thought Chloe was a little hard upon her. But I was wrong.
“Your mistress is out, I suppose,” the woman said. “The vicar told me about the marriage yesterday. I was not at church myself. I hope you will tell your mistress that I called. And don't you think, my good girl, that you could manage to get your dress changed by four in the afternoon? It has a very slatternly appearance. And do you think it conscientious to leave off your cap and apron just because your mistress is not at home? We should try to act the same in people's absence as in their presence. I suppose, now that your fellow-servant has left, you have extra work, but that need not make you careless about personal cleanliness. You must remember that your mistress—”
Chloe sat down and crossed her bare feet.
“I am my own mistress,” she said, “and the mistress of the Red House. No, don't apologize, unless it is for lecturing another person's servant—of course you couldn't be expected to understand.” Chloe spoke very sweetly, but the woman half rose. “Do sit down. You're the vicar's wife, I suppose,” Chloe went on. “It's very kind of you to call. My husband will be down presently. He shall make the kettle boil and get some tea for you.”
The vicar's wife certainly made a brave effort to pull herself together.
“I am extremely sorry that the mistake occurred,” she said; “I am rather short-sighted.”
“Yes, of course you must be, very,” said Chloe, amiably. The vicar's wife looked more and more uncomfortable. Then Chloe took pity on her, and began to laugh.
“It was very funny,” she said. “You mustn't mind my laughing a little. Really I ought to be proud to be taken for a servant. But, of course, moving only among the upper classes, you've never met any one who did any house-work except servants. Now, I love house-work. I like it much better than my own proper work.”
“What is your own proper work?”
“Oh, I was taught a trade, and my husband has learned one. We work very hard.”
“You must find this house very large, with no servants.” I could not decide whether sympathy or impertinence dictated this speech. Chloe decided.
“Do you think so?” she said, politely.
The vicar's wife was encouraged to wonder why we had taken the house.
“We came to live in it because we wished to,” said my wife.
“It's a very heavy rent, I suppose,” the insufferable woman went on.
“No,” said my wife. “Thank you so much for asking.”
The woman paused ere she offered the return scratch.
“You must not expect many callers. I am afraid Elmhurst's very exclusive.”
“Indeed! Why, I wonder?”
“The leading families are very select. They expect to know all about new-comers, and it is not everybody who can get on the visiting-list of our best set.”
“This is very interesting,” said Chloe, calmly. “The habits of the aborigines—”
“My dear Mrs.— I fear I do not know your name—I am only warning you for your own good, and to prevent disappointment in the future. I shall continue to call on you. A vicar's wife has duties— As the dear Dean of Somerset used to say, ‘Social distinctions do not exist among the wives of the clergy.’”
“Did he really? How discerning!”
“Yes, he did indeed. But, on the other hand, we learn in our catechism to do our duty in that state of life to which it has pleased God to call us. And, of course, we all have our appointed stations.”
“Shall please, not has pleased,” corrected Chloe; “we are not forbidden to rise if we can, even from domestic service to the level of the best set in Elmhurst. What is the chief qualification? Money, I suppose.”
“The best families are very well off,” said the vicaress, innocently. “As the dear Bishop of Selsea used to say, we ought not to associate in intimacy with persons of distinctly different social rank from our own.”
“Did he say that? Do you know him, then?”
“I have stayed at the palace.”
“Are you sure you didn't misunderstand him? I have often heard him say that a man should choose associates of his own intellectual rank—”
“You have often heard him say?” The vicar's wife's voice trembled unaccountably.
“Yes—I know him rather well. He is my uncle. I never heard him mention your name. Yet I seem to know your face. Were you not Miss Blake before you married?”
The vicar's wife could not deny it.
“I remember you when I was a little girl and you were my uncle's housekeeper. Well, I was saying just now, domestic service is a very honorable calling.”
There was a desperate pause. The woman was indeed delivered into Chloe's hands by the long arm of coincidence. She rose.
“I think I will go now,” she said, in quite a broken voice.
Chloe caught her hand impulsively.
“I am sorry,” she said. “I wouldn't have said it if I hadn't thought you wanted to be horrid to me. I dare say you didn't, really, but I have a hateful temper. Please forgive me. I won't tell a soul, if you'd rather I didn't. And I like you heaps better since I've remembered that you used to work too. Do forgive me! I won't tell any one, not even my husband,” she went on; and I was shocked to find she could even think of keeping a secret from me. “Say you forgive me, and let me get you some tea.”
The vicaress smiled—a smile of sheer embarrassment—yet even that changed her face more pleasantly than I had believed possible.
“There's only one thing I wish you would do for me,” Chloe went on. “Don't let the first families of Elmhurst know one of my uncles is a bishop, or they'll call. We want to be quiet. And we live here because the house is our own. The late owner was my husband's uncle.”
I came down at this point and was presented to the vicaress. She quite thawed, and we had a pleasant tea. But when we called on her she was as stiff and almost as disagreeable as ever. The habits of a lifetime cannot be uprooted even by such a delightful experience as quarrelling and making it up again with Chloe. When she had gone that day Chloe began to cry. A woman can never get into a royal rage without tears for a sequel.
The awful truth about Chloe's uncle must have leaked out somehow, for later on we had streams of callers. Some of them were rather nice. And the vicar's wife was almost the only snob among them. But they were the sort of people who might have called on us anywhere, and they have really no place in the story of the Red House.
Yolande wrote to us that she could let one of our cottages to a desirable tenant. We wrote back giving her full powers.
At the end of the week Mary and her Jim came back to us and took up their dwelling in the “rooms beyond the kitchen.” Two days later Yolande led me to the cottage desecrated by the presence of Prosser. It was empty. The garden had been cleared of all the unseemly litter that during his occupancy had defiled it. A portion of the cottage garden had even been dug and cleared of weeds. The cottage next door to Prosser's presented a spotless door-step, and its shining windows blinked at us over snowy muslin short blinds.
“How did you manage it?” I asked, in rapturous admiration.
“How do you get a rat out of its hole?”
“Put in a ferret.”
“Wise man! And what does the rat do when it sees the ferret?”
“So did Prosser. He knew he was a rat, and fair game for the ferret by virtue of more than one shady act. So when I put in the ferret he bolted.”
“But your ferret?”
“I let the next—door cottage to the ferret for seven and sixpence a week. Rents are high here. There are very few cottages.”
“That's about eighteen pounds a year. Yolande, you're a goddess! And who is your ferret?”
“His name is Bates. He is a perfectly respectable ferret. I gave him a hint to give Prosser a hint, and Prosser took it.”
“Let's go and tell Chloe.”
“I've told her. And she wants to work. Let's go into Prosser's house and look over it. I'm afraid it will want doing up. Mrs. Bates has given it what she calls a rough cleaning down already. Mrs. Bates is a woman after my own heart.”
We went over the cottage and decided that it must be repapered throughout.
“Mrs. Bates can do that. She's a universal genius.”
“Yet you approve—”
“Yes, in that walk of life.”
I was musing. Chloe and I had often thought that we should like to do a little paper-hanging, but I decided not to tell Yolande this.
“When it's cleaned and papered,” she said, with kindling enthusiasm, “I'll let that too.”
“You shall,” I said, and then hastening away from the subject of paper-hanging, lest she should insist on my giving the order for it to Mrs. Bates that very moment, I said:
“By-the-way, you haven't told me yet wherein consists the ferretiness of your ferret, Bates.”
“Oh, haven't I?” she said, carelessly. “You see, my ferret's a policeman.”
This, like Yolande's last-solved problem, was simplicity itself. And yet we had never thought of it!