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Moore, George (George Augustus) / A Mummer's Wife
Produced by Andrea Ball, Charles Franks, Juliet Sutherland,
and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team.





A MUMMER'S WIFE


BY GEORGE MOORE




A DEDICATION TO ROBERT ROSS




I


In the sunset of his life a man often finds himself unable to put dates
even upon events in which his sympathies were, and perhaps are still,
engaged; all things seem to have befallen yesterday, and yet it cannot be
less than three years since we were anxious to testify to our belief in the
kindness and justice with which you had fulfilled your double duties in the
_Morning Post_ towards us and the proprietors of the paper.

A committee sprang up quickly, and a letter was addressed by it to all the
notable workers in the arts and to all those who were known to be
interested in the arts, and very soon a considerable sum of money was
collected; but when the committee met to decide what form the commemorative
gift should take, a perplexity arose, many being inclined towards a piece
of plate. It was pointed out that a piece of plate worth eight hundred
pounds would prove a cumbersome piece of furniture--a white elephant, in
fact--in the small house or apartment or flat in which a critic usually
lives. The truth of this could not be gainsaid. Other suggestions were
forthcoming for your benefit, every one obtaining a certain amount of
support, but none commanding a majority of votes; and the perplexity
continued till it was mooted that the disposal of the money should be left
to your option, and in view of the fact that you had filled the post of art
critic for many years, you decided to found a Slade scholarship. It seemed
to you well that a young man on leaving the Slade School should be provided
with a sum of money sufficient to furnish a studio, and some seven or eight
hundred pounds were invested, the remainder being spent on a trinket for
your personal wear--a watch. I have not forgotten that I was one of the
dissidents, scholarships not appealing to me, but lately I have begun to
see that you were wise in the disposal of the money. A watch was enough for
remembrance, and since I caught sight of it just now, the pleasant thoughts
it has evoked console me for your departure: after bidding you good-bye on
the doorstep, I return to my fireside to chew the cud once again of the
temperate and tolerant articles that I used to read years ago in the
_Morning Post_.

You see, Ross, I was critic myself for some years on the _Speaker_,
but my articles were often bitter and explosive; I was prone to polemics
and lacked the finer sense that enabled you to pass over works with which
you were not in sympathy, and without wounding the painter. My intention
was often to wound him in the absurd hope that I might compel him to do
better. My motto seems to have been 'Compel them to come in'--words used by
Jesus in one of his parables, and relied on by ecclesiastics as a
justification of persecution, and by many amongst us whose names I will not
pillory here, for I have chosen that these pages shall be about you and
nothing but you. If I speak of myself in a forgotten crusade, it is to
place you in your true light. We recognized your critical insight and your
literary skill, but it was not for these qualities that we, the criticized,
decided to present you, the critic, with a token of our gratitude; nor was
it because you had praised our works (a great number of the subscribers had
not received praise from you): we were moved altogether, I think, by the
consciousness that you had in a difficult task proved yourself to be a
kindly critic, and yet a just one, and it was for these qualities that you
received an honour, that is unique, I think, in the chronicles of
criticism.



II


Memory pulls me up, and out of some moments of doubt, the suspicion emerges
that all I am writing here was read by me somewhere: but it was not in our
original declaration of faith, for I never saw it, not having attended the
presentation of the testimonial. Where, then? In the newspapers that quoted
from the original document? Written out by whom? By Witt or by MacColl,
excellent writers both? But being a writer myself, I am called upon to do
my own writing.... Newspapers are transitory things--a good reason for
writing out the story afresh; and there is still another reason for writing
it out--my reasons for dedicating this book to you. We must have reasons
always, else we pass for unreasonable beings, and a better reason for
dedicating a book to you than mine, I am fain to believe, will never be
found by anybody in search of a reason for his actions. My name is among
the signatories to the document that I have called 'our declaration of
faith'; and having committed myself thus fully to your critical judgment,
it seems to me that for the completion of the harmony a dedication is
necessary. A fair share of reasons I am setting forth for this act of mine,
every one of them valid, and the most valid of all my reason for choosing
this book, _A Mummer's Wife_, to dedicate to you, is your own
commendation of it the other night when you said to me that no book of mine
in your opinion was more likely to 'live'! To live for five-and-twenty
years is as long an immortality as anyone should set his heart on; for who
would wish to be chattered about by the people that will live in these
islands three hundred years hence? We should not understand them nor they
us. Avaunt, therefore, all legendary immortalities, and let us be content,
Ross, to be remembered by our friends, and, perhaps, to have our names
passed on by disciples to another generation! A fair and natural
immortality this is; let us share it together. Our bark lies in the
harbour: you tell me the spars are sound, and the seams have been caulked;
the bark, you say, is seaworthy and will outlive any of the little storms
that she may meet on the voyage--a better craft is not to be found in my
little fleet. You said yesterevening across the hearthrug, '_Esther
Waters_ speaks out of a deeper appreciation of life;' but you added: 'In
_A Mummer's Wife_ there is a youthful imagination and a young man's
exuberance on coming into his own for the first time, and this is a
quality--'No doubt it is a quality, Ross; but what kind of quality? You did
not finish your sentence, or I have forgotten it. Let me finish it for
you--'that outweighs all other qualities' But does it? I am interpreting
you badly. You would not commit yourself to so crude an opinion, and I am
prepared to believe that I did not catch the words as they fell from your
lips. All I can recall for certain of the pleasant moment when, you were
considering which of my works you liked the best are stray words that may
be arranged here into a sentence which, though it does not represent your
critical judgments accurately, may be accepted by you. You said your
thoughts went more frequently to _A Mummer's Wife_ than to _Esther
Waters_; and I am almost sure something was said about the earlier book
being a more spontaneous issue of the imagination, and that the wandering
life of the mummers gives an old-world, adventurous air to the book,
reminding you of _The Golden Ass_--a book I read last year, and found
in it so many remembrances of myself that I fell to thinking it was a book
I might have written had I lived two thousand years ago. Who can say he has
not lived before, and is it not as important to believe we lived herebefore
as it is to believe we are going to live hereafter? If I had lived
herebefore, Jupiter knows what I should have written, but it would not have
been _Esther Waters_: more likely a book like _A Mummer's
Wife_--a band of jugglers and acrobats travelling from town to town. As
I write these lines an antique story rises up in my mind, a recollection of
one of my lost works or an instantaneous reading of Apuleius into _A
Mummers Wife_--which?

G.M.




A MUMMER'S WIFE


I


In default of a screen, a gown and a red petticoat had been thrown over a
clothes-horse, and these shaded the glare of the lamp from the eyes of the
sick man. In the pale obscurity of the room, his bearded cheeks could be
seen buried in a heap of tossed pillows. By his bedside sat a young woman.
As she dozed, her face drooped until her features were hidden, and the
lamp-light made the curious curves of a beautiful ear look like a piece of
illuminated porcelain. Her hands lay upon her lap, her needlework slipped
from them; and as it fell to the ground she awoke.

She pressed her hands against her forehead and made an effort to rouse
herself. As she did so, her face contracted with an expression of disgust,
and she remembered the ether. The soft, vaporous odour drifted towards her
from a small table strewn with medicine bottles, and taking care to hold
the cork tightly in her fingers she squeezed it into the bottle.

At that moment the clock struck eleven and the clear tones of its bell
broke the silence sharply; the patient moaned as if in reply, and his thin
hairy arms stirred feverishly on the wide patchwork counterpane. She took
them in her hands and covered them over; she tried to arrange the pillows
more comfortably, but as she did so he turned and tossed impatiently, and,
fearing to disturb him, she put back the handkerchief she had taken from
the pillow to wipe the sweat from his brow, and regaining her chair, with a
weary movement she picked up the cloth that had fallen from her knees and
slowly continued her work.

It was a piece of patchwork like the counterpane on the bed; the squares of
a chessboard had been taken as a design, and, selecting a fragment of
stuff, she trimmed it into the required shape and sewed it into its
allotted corner.

Nothing was now heard but the methodical click of her needle as it struck
the head of her thimble, and then the long swish of the thread as she drew
it through the cloth. The lamp at her elbow burned steadily, and the glare
glanced along her arm as she raised it with the large movement of sewing.

Her hair was blue wherever the light touched it, and it encircled the white
prominent temple like a piece of rich black velvet; a dark shadow defined
the delicate nose, and hinted at thin indecision of lips, whilst a broad
touch of white marked the weak but not unbeautiful chin.

On the corner of the table lay a book, a well-worn volume in a faded red
paper cover. It was a novel she used to read with delight when she was a
girl, but it had somehow failed to interest her, and after a few pages she
had laid it aside, preferring for distraction her accustomed sewing. She
was now well awake, and, as she worked, her thoughts turned on things
concerning the daily routine of her life. She thought of the time when her
husband would be well: of the pillow she was making; of how nice it would
look in the green armchair; of the much greater likelihood of letting their
rooms if they were better furnished; of their new lodger; and of the
probability of a quarrel between him and her mother-in-law, Mrs. Ede.

For more than a week past the new lodger had formed the staple subject of
conversation in this household. Mrs. Ede, Kate's mother-in-law, was loud in
her protestations that the harbouring of an actor could not but be attended
by bad luck. Kate felt a little uneasy; her puritanism was of a less marked
kind; perhaps at first she had felt inclined to agree with her
mother-in-law, but her husband had shown himself so stubborn, and had so
persistently declared that he was not going to keep his rooms empty any
longer, that for peace' sake she was fain to side with him. The question
arose in a very unexpected way. During the whole winter they were
unfortunate with their rooms, though they made many attempts to get
lodgers; they even advertised. Some few people asked to see the rooms; but
they merely made an offer. One day a man who came into the shop to buy some
paper collars asked Kate if she had any apartments to let. She answered
yes, and they went upstairs. After a cursory inspection he told her that he
was the agent in advance to a travelling opera company, and that if she
liked he would recommend her rooms to the stage manager, a particular
friend of his. The proposition was somewhat startling, but, not liking to
say no, she proposed to refer the matter to her husband.

At that particular moment Ede happened to be engaged in a violent dispute
with his mother, and so angry was he that when Mrs. Ede raised her hands to
protest against the introduction of an actor into the household, he
straightway told her that 'if she didn't like it she might do the other
thing.' Nothing more was said at the time; the old lady retired in
indignation, and Mr. Lennox was written to. Kate sympathized alternately
with both sides. Mrs. Ede was sturdy in defence of her principles; Ede was
petulant and abusive; and between the two Kate was blown about like a
feather in a storm. Daily the argument waxed warmer, until one night, in
the middle of a scene characterized by much Biblical quotation, Ede
declared he could stand it no longer, and rushed out of the house. In vain
the women tried to stop him, knowing well what the consequences would be. A
draught, a slight exposure, sufficed to give him a cold, and with him a
cold always ended in an asthmatic attack. And these were often so violent
as to lay him up for weeks at a time. When he returned, his temper grown
cooler under the influence of the night air, he was coughing, and the next
night found him breathless. His anger had at first vented itself against
his mother, whom he refused to see, and thus the whole labour of nursing
him was thrown on Kate. She didn't grumble at this, but it was terrible to
have to listen to him.

It was Mr. Lennox, and nothing but Mr. Lennox. All the pauses in the
suffocation were utilized to speak on this important question, and even now
Kate, who had not yet perceived that the short respite which getting rid of
the phlegm had given him was coming to an end, expected him to say
something concerning the still unknown person. But Ede did not speak, and,
to put herself as it were out of suspense, she referred to some previous
conversation:

'I'm sure you're right; the only people in the town who let their rooms are
those who have a theatrical connection.'

'Oh, I don't care; I'm going to have a bad night,' said Mr. Ede, who now
thought only of how he should get his next breath.

'But you seemed to be getting better,' she replied hurriedly.

'No! I feel it coming on--I'm suffocating. Have you got the ether?'

Kate did not answer, but made a rapid movement towards the table, and
snatching the bottle she uncorked it. The sickly odour quietly spread like
oil over the close atmosphere of the room, but, mastering her repugnance,
she held it to him, and in the hope of obtaining relief he inhaled it
greedily. But the remedy proved of no avail, and he pushed the bottle away.

'Oh, these headaches! My head is splitting,' he said, after a deep
inspiration which seemed as if it would cost him his life. 'Nothing seems
to do me any good. Have you got any cigarettes?'

'I'm sorry, they haven't arrived yet. I wrote for them,' she replied,
hesitating; 'but don't you think--?'

He shook his head; and, resenting Kate's assiduities, with trembling
fingers he unfastened the shawl she had placed on his shoulders, and then,
planting his elbows on his knees, with a fixed head and elevated shoulders,
he gave himself up to the struggle of taking breath.... At that moment she
would have laid down her life to save him from the least of his pains, but
she could only sit by him watching the struggle, knowing that nothing could
be done to relieve him. She had seen the same scene repeated a hundred
times before, but it never seemed to lose any of its terror. In the first
month of their marriage she had been frightened by one of these asthmatic
attacks. It had come on in the middle of the night, and she remembered well
how she had prayed to God that it should not be her fate to see her husband
die before her eyes. She knew now that death was not to be apprehended--the
paroxysm would wear itself out--but she knew also of the horrors that would
have to be endured before the time of relief came. She could count them
upon her fingers--she could see it all as in a vision--a nightmare that
would drag out its long changes until the dawn began to break; she
anticipated the hours of the night.

'Air! Air! I'm suff-o-cating!' he sobbed out with a desperate effort.

Kate ran to the window and threw it open. The paroxysm had reached its
height, and, resting his elbows well on his knees, he gasped many times,
but before the inspiration was complete his strength failed him. No want
but that of breath could have forced him to try again; and the second
effort was even more terrible than the first. A great upheaval, a great
wrenching and rocking seemed to be going on within him; the veins on his
forehead were distended, the muscles of his chest laboured, and it seemed
as if every minute were going to be his last. But with a supreme effort he
managed to catch breath, and then there was a moment of respite, and Kate
could see that he was thinking of the next struggle, for he breathed
avariciously, letting the air that had cost him so much agony pass slowly
through his lips. To breathe again he would have to get on to his feet,
which he did, and so engrossed was he in the labour of breathing that he
pushed the paraffin lamp roughly; it would have fallen had Kate not been
there to catch it. She besought of him to say what he wanted, but he made
no reply, and continued to drag himself from one piece of furniture to
another, till at last, grasping the back of a chair, he breathed by jerks,
each inspiration being accompanied by a violent spasmodic wrench, violent
enough to break open his chest. She watched, expecting every moment to see
him roll over, a corpse, but knowing from past experiences that he would
recover somehow. His recoveries always seemed to her like miracles, and she
watched the long pallid face crushed under a shock of dark matted hair, a
dirty nightshirt, a pair of thin legs; but for the moment the grandeur of
human suffering covered him, lifting him beyond the pale of loving or
loathing, investing and clothing him in the pity of tragic things. The
room, too, seemed transfigured. The bare wide floor, the gaunt bed, the
poor walls plastered with religious prints cut from journals, even the
ordinary furniture of everyday use--the little washhandstand with the
common delf ewer, the chest of drawers that might have been bought for
thirty shillings--lost their coarseness; their triviality disappeared,
until nothing was seen or felt but this one suffering man.

The minutes slipped like the iron teeth of a saw over Kate's sensibilities.
A hundred times she had run over in her mind the list of remedies she had
seen him use. They were few in number, and none of any real service except
the cigarettes which she had not. She asked him to allow her to try iodine,
but he could not or would not make her any answer. It was cruel to see him
struggling, but he resisted assistance, and watching like one in a dream,
frightened at her own powerlessness to save or avert, Kate remained
crouching by the fireplace without strength to think or act, until she was
suddenly awakened by seeing him relax his hold and slip heavily on the
floor; and it was only by putting forth her whole strength she could get
him into a sitting position; when she attempted to place him in a chair he
slipped through her arms. There was, therefore, nothing to do but to shriek
for help, and hope to awaken her mother-in-law. The echoes rang through the
house, and as they died away, appalled, she listened to the silence.

At length it grew clear that Mrs. Ede could not be awakened, and Kate saw
that she would have to trust to herself alone, and after two or three
failures she applied herself to winning him back to consciousness. It was
necessary to do so before attempting to move him again, and, sprinkling his
face with water, she persuaded him to open his eyes, and after one little
stare he slipped back into the nothingness he had come out of; and this was
repeated several times, Kate redoubling her efforts until at last she
succeeded in placing him in a chair. He sat there, still striving and
struggling with his breath, unable to move, and soaked with sweat, but
getting better every minute. The worst of the attack was now over; she
buttoned his nightshirt across his panting chest and covered his shoulders
with his red shawl once more, and with a sentiment of real tenderness she
took his hand in hers. She looked at him, feeling her heart grow larger.

He was her husband; he had suffered terribly, and was now getting better;
and she was his wife, whose duty it was to attend him. She only wished he
would allow her to love him a little better; but against her will facts
pierced through this luminous mist of sentiment, and she could not help
remembering how petulant he was with her, how utterly all her wishes were
disregarded. 'What a pity he's not a little different!' she thought; but
when she looked at him and saw how he suffered, all other thoughts were
once more drowned and swept away. She forgot how he often rendered her life
miserable, wellnigh unbearable, by small vices, faults that defy
definition, unending selfishness and unceasing irritability. But now all
dissatisfaction and bitternesses were again merged into a sentiment that
was akin to love; and in this time of physical degradation he possessed her
perhaps more truly, more perfectly, than even in his best moments of
health.

But her life was one of work, not of musing, and there was plenty for her
to attend to. Ralph would certainly not be able to leave his chair for some
time yet; she had wrapped him up comfortably in a blanket, she could do no
more, and whilst he was recovering it would be as well to tidy up the room
a bit. He would never be able to sleep in a bed that he had been lying in
all day; she had better make the bed at once, for he generally got a little
ease towards morning, particularly after a bad attack. So, hoping that the
present occasion would not prove an exception, Kate set to work to make the
bed. She resolved to do this thoroughly, and turning the mattress over, she
shook it with all her force. She did the same with the pillows, and fearing
that there might be a few crumbs sticking to the sheets, she shook them out
several times; and when the last crease had been carefully smoothed away
she went back to her husband and insisted on being allowed to paint his
back with iodine, although he did not believe in the remedy. On his saying
he was thirsty, she went creeping down the narrow stairs to the kitchen,
hunted for matches in the dark, lighted a spirit lamp and made him a hot
drink, which he drank without thanking her. She fell to thinking of his
ingratitude, and then of the discomfort of the asthma. How could she expect
him to think of her when he was thinking of his breath? All the same, on
these words her waking thoughts must have passed into dream thoughts. She
was still watching by his bedside, waiting to succour him whenever he
should ask for help, yet she must have been asleep. She did not know how
long she slept, but it could not have been for long; and there was no
reason for his peevishness, for she had not left him.

'I'm sorry, Ralph, but I could not help it, I was so very tired. What can I
do for you, dear?'

'Do for me?' he said--'why, shut the window. I might have died for all you
would have known or cared.'

She walked across the room and shut the window, but as she came back to her
place she said, 'I don't know why you speak to me like that, Ralph.'

'Prop me up: if I lie so low I shall get bad again. If you had a touch of
this asthma you'd know what it is to lie alone for hours.'

'For hours, Ralph?' Kate repeated, and she looked at the clock and saw that
she had not been asleep for more than half an hour. Without contradicting
him--for of what use would that be, only to make matters worse?--she
arranged the pillows and settled the blankets about him, and thinking it
would be advisable to say something, she congratulated him on seeming so
much better.

'Better! If I'm better, it's no thanks to you,' he said. 'You must have
been mad to leave the window open so long.'

'You wanted it open; you know very well that when you're very bad like that
you must have change of air. The room was so close.'

'Yes, but that is no reason for leaving it open half an hour.'

'I offered to shut it, and you wouldn't let me.'

'I dare say you're sick of nursing me, and would like to get rid of me. The
window wasn't a bad dodge.'

Kate remained silent, being too indignant for the moment to think of
replying; but it was evident from her manner that she would not be able to
contain herself much longer. He had hurt her to the quick, and her brown
eyes swam with tears. His head lay back upon the built-up pillows, he fumed
slowly, trying to find new matter for reproach, and breath wherewith to
explain it. At last he thought of the cigarettes.

'Even supposing that you did not remember how long you left the window
open, I cannot understand how you forgot to send for the cigarettes. You
know well enough that smoking is the only thing that relieves me when I'm
in this state. I think it was most unfeeling--yes, most unfeeling!' Having
said so much, he leaned forward to get breath, and coughed.

'You'd better lie still, Ralph; you'll only make yourself bad again. Now
that you feel a little easier you should try to go to sleep.'

So far she got without betraying any emotion, but as she continued to
advise him her voice began to tremble, her presence of mind to forsake her,
and she burst into a flood of tears.

'I don't know how you can treat me as you do,' she said, sobbing
hysterically. 'I do everything--I give up my night's rest to you, I work
hard all day for you, and in return I only receive hard words. Oh, it's no
use,' she said; 'I can bear it no longer; you'll have to get someone else
to mind you.'

This outburst of passion came suddenly upon Mr. Ede, and for some time he
was at a loss how to proceed. At last, feeling a little sorry, he resolved
to make it up, and putting out his hand to her, he said:

'Now, don't cry, Kate; perhaps I was wrong in speaking so crossly. I didn't
mean all I said--it's this horrid asthma.'

'Oh, I can bear anything but to be told I neglect you--and when I stop up
watching you three nights running----'

These little quarrels were of constant occurrence. Irritable by nature, and
rendered doubly so by the character of his complaint, the invalid at times
found it impossible to restrain his ill-humour; but he was not entirely
bad; he inherited a touch of kind-heartedness from his mother, and being
now moved by Kate's tears, he said:

'That's quite true, and I'm sorry for what I said; you are a good little
nurse. I won't scold you again. Make it up.'

Kate found it hard to forget merely because Ralph desired it, and for some
time she refused to listen to his expostulations, and walked about the room
crying, but her anger could not long resist the dead weight of sleep that
was oppressing her, and eventually she came and sat down in her own place
by him. The next step to reconciliation was more easy. Kate was not
vindictive, although quicktempered, and at last, amid some hysterical
sobbing, peace was restored. Ralph began to speak of his asthma again,
telling how he had fancied he was going to die, and when she expressed her
fear and regret he hastened to assure her that no one ever died of asthma,
that a man might live fifty, sixty, or seventy years, suffering all the
while from the complaint; and he rambled on until words and ideas together
failed him, and he fell asleep. With a sigh of relief Kate rose to her
feet, and seeing that he was settled for the night, she turned to leave
him, and passed into her room with a slow and dragging movement; but the
place had a look so cold and unrestful that it pierced through even her
sense of weariness, and she stood urging her tired brains to think of what
she should do. At last, remembering that she could get a pillow from the
room they reserved for letting, she turned to go.

Facing their room, and only divided by the very narrowest of passages, was
the stranger's apartment.

Both doors were approached by a couple of steps, which so reduced the space
that were two people to meet on the landing, one would have to give way to
the other. Mr. and Mrs. Ede found this proximity to their lodger, when they
had one, somewhat inconvenient, but, as he said, 'One doesn't get ten
shillings a week for nothing.'

Kate lingered a moment on the threshold, and then, with the hand in which
she held the novel she had been reading, she picked up her skirt and
stepped across the way.




II


At first she could not determine who was passing through the twilight of
the room, but as the blinds were suddenly drawn up and a flood of sunlight
poured across the bed, she fell back amid the pillows, having recognized
her mother-in-law in a painful moment of semi-blindness. The old woman
carried a slop-pail, which she nearly dropped, so surprised was she to find
Kate in the stranger's room.

'But how did you get here?' she said hastily.

'I had to give Ralph my pillow, and when he went to sleep I came to fetch
one out of the bedroom here; and then I thought I would be more comfortable
here--I was too tired to go back again--I don't know how it was--what does
it matter?'

Kate, who was stupefied with sleep, had answered so crossly that Mrs. Ede
did not speak for some time; at last, at the end of a long silence, she
said:

'Then he had a very bad night?'

'Dreadful!' returned Kate. 'I never was so frightened in my life.'

'And how did the fit come on?' asked Mrs. Ede.

'Oh, I can't tell you now,' said Kate. 'I'm so tired. I'm aching all over.'

'Well, then, I'll bring you up your breakfast. You do look tired. It will
do you good to remain in bed.'

'Bring me up my breakfast! Then, what time is it?' said Kate, sitting up in
bed with a start.

'What does it matter what the time is? If you're tired, lie still; I'll see
that everything is right.'

'But I've promised Mrs. Barnes her dress by tomorrow night. Oh, my
goodness! I shall never get it done! Do tell me what time it is.'

'Well, it's just nine,' the old woman answered apologetically; 'but Mrs.
Barnes will have to wait; you can't kill yourself. It's a great shame of
Ralph to have you sitting up when I could look after him just as well, and
all because of the mummer.'

'Oh, don't, mother,' said Kate, who knew that Mrs. Ede could rate
play-actors for a good half-hour without feeling the time passing, and
taking her mother-in-law's hands in hers, she looked earnestly in her face,
saying:

'You know, mother, I have a hard time of it, and I try to bear up as well
as I can. You're the only one I've to help me; don't turn against me. Ralph
has set his mind on having the rooms let, and the mummer, as you call him,
is coming here to-day; it's all settled. Promise me you'll do nothing to
unsettle it, and that while Mr. Lennox is here you'll try to make him
comfortable. I've my dressmaking to attend to, and can't be always after
him. Will you do this thing for me?' and after a moment or so of indecision
Mrs. Ede said:

'I don't believe money made out of such people can bring luck, but since
you both wish it, I suppose I must give way. But you won't be able to say I
didn't warn you.'

'Yes, yes, but since we can't prevent his coming, will you promise that
whilst he's here you'll attend to him just as you did to the other
gentleman?'

'I shall say nothing to him, and if he doesn't make the house a disgrace, I
shall be well satisfied.'

'How do you mean a disgrace?'

'Don't you know, dear, that actors have always a lot of women after them,
and I for one am not going to attend on wenches like them. If I had my way
I'd whip such people until I slashed all the wickedness out of them.'

'But he won't bring any women here; we won't allow it,' said Kate, a little
shocked, and she strove to think how they should put a stop to such
behaviour. 'If Mr. Lennox doesn't conduct himself properly--'

'Of course I shall try to do my duty, and if Mr. Lennox respects himself I
shall try to respect him.'

She spoke these words hesitatingly, but the admission that she possibly
might respect Mr. Lennox satisfied Kate, and not wishing to press the
matter further, she said, suddenly referring to their previous
conversation:

'But didn't you say that it was nine o'clock?'

'It's more than nine now.'

'Oh, Lord! oh, Lord! how late I am! I suppose the two little girls are
here?'

'They just came in as I was going upstairs; I've set them to work.'

'I wish you'd get the tea ready, and you might make some buttered toast;
Ralph would like some, and so should I, for the matter of that.'

Then Ralph's voice was heard calling, and seeing what was wanted, she
hastened to his assistance.

'Where were you last night?' he asked her.

'I slept in the stranger's room; I thought you'd not require me, and I was
more comfortable there. The bed in the back room is all ups and downs.'

He was breathing heavily in a way that made her fear he was going to have
another attack.

'Is mother in a great rage because I won't let her in?' he said presently.

'She's very much cut up about it, dear; you know she loves you better than
anyone in the world. You'd do well to make it up with her.'

'Well, perhaps I was wrong,' he said after a time, and with good humour,
'but she annoys me. She will interfere in everything; as if I hadn't a
right to let my rooms to whom I please. She pays for all she has here, but
I'd much sooner she left us than be lorded over in that way.'

'She doesn't want to lord it over you, dear. It's all arranged. She
promised me just now she'd say nothing more about it, and that she'd look
after Mr. Lennox like any other lodger.'

On hearing that his mother was willing to submit to his will, the invalid
smiled and expressed regret that the presence of an extra person in the
house, especially an actor, would give his wife and mother more work to do.

'But I shall soon be well,' he said, 'and I dare say downstairs looking
after the shop in a week.'

Kate protested against such imprudence, and then suggested she should go
and see after his breakfast. Ralph proffered no objection, and bidding him
goodbye for the present, she went downstairs. Annie was helping Mrs. Ede to
make the toast in the front kitchen; Lizzie stood at the table buttering
it, but as soon as Kate entered they returned to their sewing, for it was
against Kate's theories that the apprentices should assist in the household
work.

'Dear mother,' she began, but desisted, and when all was ready Mrs. Ede,
remembering she had to make peace with her son, seized the tray and went
upstairs. And the moment she was gone Kate seated herself wearily on the
red, calico-covered sofa. Like an elongated armchair, it looked quaint,
neat, and dumpy, pushed up against the wall between the black fireplace on
the right and the little window shaded with the muslin blinds, under which
a pot of greenstuff bloomed freshly. She lay back thinking vaguely, her cup
of hot tea uppermost in her mind, hoping that Mrs. Ede would not keep her
waiting long; and then, as her thoughts detached themselves, she remembered
the actor whom they expected that afternoon. The annoyances which he had
unconsciously caused her had linked him to her in a curious way, and all
her prejudices vanished in the sensation of nearness that each succeeding
hour magnified, and she wondered who this being was who had brought so much
trouble into her life even before she had seen him. As the word 'trouble'
went through her mind she paused, arrested by a passing feeling of
sentimentality; but it explained nothing, defined nothing, only touched her
as a breeze does a flower, and floated away. The dreamy warmth of the fire
absorbed her more direct feelings, and for some moments she dozed in a haze
of dim sensuousness and emotive numbness. As in a dusky glass, she saw
herself a tender, loving, but unhappy woman; by her side were her querulous
husband and her kindly-minded mother-in-law, and then there was a phantom
she could not determine, and behind it something into which she could not
see. Was it a distant country? Was it a scene of revelry? Impossible to
say, for whenever she attempted to find definite shapes in the glowing
colours they vanished in a blurred confusion.

But amid these fleeting visions there was one shape that particularly
interested her, and she pursued it tenaciously, until in a desperate effort
to define its features she awoke with a start and spoke more crossly than
she intended to the little girls, who had pulled aside the curtain and were
intently examining the huge theatrical poster that adorned the corner of
the lane. But as she scolded she could not help smiling; for she saw how
her dream had been made out of the red and blue dresses of the picture.

The arrival of each new company in the town was announced pictorially on
this corner wall, and, in the course of the year, many of the vicissitudes
to which human life is liable received illustration upon it. Wrecks at sea,
robberies on the highways, prisoners perishing in dungeons, green lanes and
lovers, babies, glowing hearths, and heroic young husbands. The opera
companies exhibited the less serious sides of life--strangely dressed
people and gallants kissing their hands to ladies standing on balconies.

The little girls examined these pictures and commented on them; and on
Saturdays it was a matter of the keenest speculation what the following
week would bring them. Lizzie preferred exciting scenes of murder and
arson, while Annie was moved more by leavetakings and declarations of
unalterable affection. These differences of taste often gave rise to little
bickerings, and last week there had been much prophesying as to whether the
tragic or the sentimental element would prove next week's attraction.
Lizzie had voted for robbers and mountains, Annie for lovers and a nice
cottage. And, remembering their little dispute, Kate said:

'Well, dears, is it a robber or a sweetheart?'

'We're not sure,' exclaimed both children in a disappointed tone of voice;
'we can't make the picture out.' Then Lizzie, who cared little for
uncertainties, said:

'It isn't a nice picture at all; it is all mixed up.'

'Not a nice picture at all, and all mixed up?' said Kate, smiling, yet
interested in the conversation. 'And all mixed up; how is that? I must see
if I can make it out myself.'

The huge poster contained some figures nearly life-size. It showed a young
girl in a bridal dress and wreath struggling between two police agents, who
were arresting her in a marketplace of old time, in a strangely costumed
crowd, which was clamouring violently. The poor bridegroom was being held
back by his friends; a handsome young man in knee-breeches and a cocked hat
watched the proceedings cynically in the right-hand corner, whilst on the
left a big fat man frantically endeavoured to recover his wig, that had
been lost in the mle. The advertisement was headed, 'Morton and Cox's
Operatic Company,' and concluded with the announcement that _Madame
Angot_ would be played at the Queen's Theatre. After a few moments spent
in examining the picture Kate said it must have something to do with
France.

'I know what it means,' cried Lizzie; 'you see that old chap on the right?
He's the rich man who has sent the two policemen to carry the bride to his
castle, and it's the young fellow in the corner who has betrayed them.'

The ingenuity of this explanation took Kate and Annie so much by surprise
that for the moment they could not attempt to controvert it, and remained
silent, whilst Lizzie looked at them triumphantly. The more they examined
the picture the more clear did it appear that Lizzie was right. At the end
of a long pause Kate said:

'Anyhow, we shall soon know, for one of the actors of the company is coming
here to lodge, and we'll ask him.'

'A real actor coming here to lodge?' exclaimed Annie.



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Library mainpage -> Moore, George (George Augustus) -> A Mummer's Wife