I would never dream of trying to make a “character” of Lizzie Higgins. Had she been a character, nothing in particular might have happened—certainly nothing in particular would have been known to have happened. “Nothing in particular.” That was her character, and facial expression, if she had one at all; that was the complexion of every case she was connected with—except the last. And that is nothing in particular now, either to her or the village. Except, perhaps, to poor old Higgins with his bend.
Lizzie was “above medium height,” which is commonplace in itself; had the characterless English apple bloom, which dulls and reddens and withers and cracks, but never dies out, and the ingratiating smile, not for men, but for any woman, a rung above her in life—a little classier.
When anything was to be “got up” in a hurry for Charlton it was slipped through the gate after dusk, per servant, to Mrs. Higgins’ cottage, with impressive low-voiced instructions—like a mystic rite connected with a better class birth or funeral. Mrs. Higgins’ front room—the suite had gone—I’ll tell about that later on—was an atmosphere of warmth on cold nights, or rather a punctuation in an atmosphere of fog, sleet, mist, rain or hail. A full stop, as it were, with a ring or halo round it, as some writers put round a period to make it plain for the printer. An atmosphere of warmth and clean fat arms, and the unreproducable smell of clean linen, honestly washed, and clear starching and hot ironing that comes to or from no laundry with its cheating, its flagrantly, brazen dishonesty, and its dirt-hiding, shirt and collar ruining gloss composition. There was the smell of a drop of gin hot there sometimes, they said, but I never noticed it. It couldn’t have done otherwise than do Mrs. Higgins and the clothes good. She had all the atmosphere of a model widow washer-woman, though Higgins was a hard-working, steady live man. He never changed. He was never seen in the ironing room. He always came in and went out in a disconnected or detached way through “the back door at the side,” whether there were clients’ servants or not in the ironing room. His bend came in there too in the other sense, for the door was low, though wide, but it came in at a rather more acute angle, just for all the world (he having his arms behind him) as if he were carrying in a sheet of bark with him on his back (to make an extra bunk with).
Mothers stick to daughters in those villages, and help them in “their trouble,” and keep it from the old man till the last moment. Longer if they can. Send her to Aunt Martha, or some one at a distance, for a holiday, or on some pretext. It would hinder the old man’s work to know. He must “take his meat, and have his sleep” —or they all might starve—and that wouldn’t mend matters. And—well. “She ain’t the first and she won’t be the last.” And sometimes, if the old man proves unreasonably obstinate and for an unreasonable length of time they add again, more decidedly, and somewhat impatiently, “She ain’t the first and she won’t be the last,” and, maybe, “And, well, if it comes to that, he ought to know, or ought to remember, when he was young, or when he was courtin’, is meant, I suppose. They say that old Higgins was as straight as any of ’em in his time, though I cannot believe it to look at him now. And that there was a Lizzie at his wedding. And she was Mrs. Higgins.”
Lizzie went early to service, in Shepperton, and was trained under a trained servant or maid. They call them all maids. Book-keeping is included in the training, and that, with the mistress, tends to make them what they are. Their very tears seem stony, whether of vexation, sorrow, or love. And Lizzie was less sentimental than the average village girl of her class, to begin with. You’ve seen the girl who would sit bolt upright, hands down, while the tears of chagrin or disappointment start from eyes set in a face of stone? They are as hopeless as the dark-skinned “white” men, whose faces go grey in anger.
Lizzie kept company with a young man in Shepperton, who was “on the line, on a trine” (as Barry Pain puts it)—or “on the railway,” as we’d say, and there was some talk. ’Twas said also that Lizzie’s mother helped her. But Lizzie didn’t mind “talk.” She rather liked it. She went to London afterwards, with the same family. Mistress died, and master went to London with Lizzie to look after the children—or mistress died there, and Lizzie was kept or stayed on. . . . There’s such a thing (unwritten yet) as “masters’” rights in England. Certainly in the case of young housekeepers to middle-aged widowers—or husbands whose wives are not wives. “It’s only natural,” and no one need be any the wiser if master acts all right, in event of “trouble.” . . . . But anyway, the young railwayman went to London, by the “trine” I presume, one holiday to see Lizzie, and he never went again. Perhaps he got a practical, common sensible dismissal. Or may be he heard “talk.” Lizzie never “talked” herself—whether of past mistresses (or masters) to present ones, or about present ones, outside. This seems a good point in the training. Pity mistresses weren’t trained in return.
Lizzie’s situation was in a flat in Clovelly Mansions in Grey’s Inn Road, where no one knoweth the people next door across the landing (say, seven or eight stories up), and masters and mistresses needn’t be married unless they like. Here she made the acquaintance of a young man—a mere boy—in a milk-walk, who served many flats—and had a few of them in his walk of life. His brother had an interest in the firm he worked for, so he was above the ordinary run of milk-walkers—he was some class. And Lizzie kept company, or walked out with him, though I don’t know how she did it, unless he never slept, or took her on the milk-walk before daylight. He got the sack for lateness and missing clients. He lingered too long at the servant’s entrance of Lizzie’s flat, planning for the future—a room and a bit for furniture. They have no time to talk of love and such nonsense.
But before that Lizzie took him, one holiday, to Chawlton to see her folks. Which was right, and good, and natural, and is a pleasing feature of young English pre-marital life. But Lizzie’s mistress was young and something human, and had a sense of humour, unusual for young mistresses in flats, where they needn’t be married to their husbands unless they like. And Lizzie confided to her, in all seriousness, but in her nothing-in-particular tone, that she was taking Mr. Jinkins (that was young Jenkins, the milk-walker) home, in order to see whether it would “make some talk in Shepperton,” where Lizzie had some friends amongst maids and others. Now, as Shepperton was a better-class village, this would seem to give some idea of Lizzie’s intelligence and the height of her social ambition, but it doesn’t, unless you know that, even in upper-class villages, mistresses drive round and make calls solely to talk about their servants, old or new. I knew one lady, who ordered her carriage and drove a distance to tell her friend that she believed her maid was, etc., etc., etc., etc.
But Lizzie and her young man from London certainly did make some talk in Chawlton, where a little talk goes a long way—with additions and repetitions, reiteration, correction, and denial—and lasts a long time. For a generation sometimes.
But Mr. Jenkins got the vulgar Australian sack, and Lizzie gave him her savings to buy cans, get cards printed, and start in business on his own, independent of his brother, whom she disliked, and to rent a room—or a couple—which shows the practical constancy of many English maids and servants. God help some of them! ’Twas even said she left her situation in the flat and lived in the rooms—or one of them—to assist him with her business ability. I know enough of the character of British servantgalism to believe that she might have done so, and yet have married him in the end, a “bride” in every way.
Anyway, it would have been nothing in particular, and Chawlton would have been none the wiser, save for a rumour. Lizzie mightn’t have minded much if it had. It would have given it something to talk about.
But “Jenkins & Co., Milk Vendors, Pure Country Milk,” speaking by the card, went as vulgarly bung as any bank, but without hurting any one in particular, and with no hope of reconstruction, and young Jenkins returned to the home of his brother, or rather his sister-in-law, and Lizzie went home to Chawlton for a rest (which made a little talk), and the two speculators never met again in this world, that I know of. Which was nothing in particular in English maid-serving and milk-walking circles. They say that Lizzie made up for awhile, first, to an old married, exservant she knew, whose son was a clerk and “some class,” but we don’t want him.
Little Billy and his smile were liked in the village, and popular with the children. He had left home early in life, and had been in various places in and around London. In the north and east, I fancied sometimes, and had worked at many things, and no doubt had often been trusted as caretaker or odd hand because of his smile alone. He worked at the brickyards now, and lived with his married brother Tom, over at Little-Sumpthin-on-the-Mud—(a little up the river from Chawlton, on this side). He was the only young man left who was after Lizzie’s time at Chawlton, and was therefore new to her, as she pervaded him at the village, and walked home with him from Shepperton one night. His smile was acquiescent. Perhaps she only wanted to see if it would make some talk. It did, and female necks craned over the little quickset front hedge (common to the whole village) to wait for them at dusk—and after it.
Then it appeared to Lizzie that Billy, who was a first-class brick hand, had put together a few pounds, and was thinking of a decent furnished little place of his own, and some ’un to take care of it. He wasn’t comfortable with his sister-in-law at Little-Sumpthin-on-the-Mud. He wasn’t “warm” there, she had too many “dry words” for Tom and the children, and some on ’em was meant for him. So Lizzie began to pervade him in a practical manner, and it made a good deal of talk.
It made more at Little Sumpthin, which was about half the size of Chawlton, for Tom was obstinately opposed to Elizabeth Higgins. And in this his wife agreed with him—she agreed with him in nothing else—not even the weather. But Billy set it all down to her.
The announcement of the engagement made casually, in a nothing-in-particular tone, by Lizzie, made but little talk in the village, either amongst the women—who knew very well what it was worth (the extra nothing-in-particularness in the tone might have warned any one with intelligence, who understood Lizzie), or amongst the men, who bucoliced good-humoredly about it. But the announcement of the date of the wedding (made in a cheerful nothing-in-particular tone by Lizzie) did make a lot of talk. However, the village agreed that “they had time to think better on it,” as old Adams and his young cracked and twisted wooden-judy-doll-wife—the most recent couple there—three years married—put it. But “why” ? the village didn’t say. Probably because they didn’t know. You see there was nothing else to talk or speculate about at Chawlton at the time. Mrs. Adams hadn’t had her proposed twins yet. Young Bob Wheeler hadn’t even come to board with the Adamses at that time.
Little Billy rented one of the half-hutches, the one next the Bow Winders, and got the furniture from Staines, partly for cash and partly on time payment, to give himself plenty of time, and provide for unforeseen expenses. He would have taken one of the Winders, which was also vacant, and risked it, but popular opinion overbore him. Besides, Leonard was cautious and far-seeing for both their sakes. Lizzie had aimed at the Winder, but took its loss as nothing in particular.
Now the Higginses had a little old-fashioned suite (I’d describe it if I had time, though it wasn’t called a “suite,” but a “set of cheers an’ sofy,” or something, when they got it) that had been sewn up in covers and stowed away in the spare room—to make room for the ironing—and regularly unsewn, dusted, and cleaned every spring for ten years or more, and sewn up and stowed again, and was little the worse for its twenty years or so of want of air and human society. It was bought before Lizzie was born. Now Lizzie had told Billy not to buy a suite just yet, so one night, while Billy was away, and with the connivance of one or two neighbour cronies, the new old furniture was carried down, and set out in the freshly-cleaned front parlour of Billy’s cottage, where it was discovered by Billy early in the morning, greatly to his surprise, and to his eternal gratitude thereafter, in spite of what came later. But to Lizzie it was nothing in particular, for she had known it all along.
“They be just like startin’ as Higgins an’ me started, an’ meant to keep on,” old Mrs. Higgins was heard to say, with a momentary evanishment of the twinkle, I should think. I wonder if she and the old man talked it over that night, and by a dying fire, and by their lonely old selves. I wonder. Yes, I wonder. As they started, and meant to keep on.
They went across the fields to the little grey old composite church—whose repairs looked older than itself, with their filled-in and mended and shored-up cracks—and got married. Or, Lizzie married Billy. “In the spring-time, Joe the ostler and sweet Annie Smith were wed.” Old Higgins went round apart and by a way of his own. It was a way of his own, and they knew him, “let ’un bide.’ They do so in England. I wish they’d do so more in Australia. His figure was seen at times over the hedges, or gaps in them, in his Sunday best, which made small difference in his appearance, and none in his gait or manner; and he steered his bend through the narrow hedges and round unexpected corners like a man with the nose-ring of fate in his nose and his hands tied behind. And so another triangle of life was set up.
And his wife and friends. Well, see the average English melodrama with a village wedding and breakfast—say “Hoodman Blind.” It ain’t so very far out. And we all rehearse, whether before a wedding or a funeral, though not one speak a word nor make a sign to each other at the rehearsal. And most of us know it.
They gave a breakfast at the beerhouse (I’m beginning to feel brutal), mostly as a tribute to little Billy’s goodness and his smile. His brother Tom was not there, and they never spoke again till the end of his world came to Billy.
Leonard dropped in, which was affable of Mr. Leonard, and spoke a few words, which nearly all consisted of “as the sayin’ is” —his habitual expression in times of peace, sociality, or festivity.
“He had great pleasure, as the sayin’ is, in gettin’ up, as the sayin’ is, to say a few words, as the sayin’ is. I have known the Higginses, as the sayin’ is, since ever they was Higginses, as the sayin’ is. And I’ve known Lizzie Higgins, as the sayin’ is, since the first day she was an Iggins, as the sayin’ is.” (Great applause at this unexpected “point,” most unexpected by Leonard himself.) “I’ve—I’ve nursed her on me knee, as the sayin’ is. An’ as for Billy there, as the sayin’ is—as the sayin’ is—has the sayin’ is. Here, Snike, as the sayin’ is, help the missus an’ the girl to clear out all them pewters to the bar, as the sayin’ is, an’ tell Coxgrave (the landlord) to fill ’em all up, as the sayin’ is—and—and— All the pewters in the house, as the sayin’ is. I’m winded.” He must have stage-fright himself to “shout” like that.
I don’t know how the couple put in the time after breakfast, but suppose Lizzie took Billy for a practical stroll, and the others went to work, as the sayin’ is.
Lizzie was a model housekeeper.
There came to Chawlton an old chum of Billy’s. He couldn’t have been a very old chum, but Billy said he was. Anyway, a chap as Billy knowed in London turned up, hard up, but that was between him and Billy.
Bob Cleaves was tall, slight, and quiet, with a good face, brown eyes, and no smile. He is the Man Without a Smile of the story. There’s a legend or superstition in the nations that all brown eyes are, or once were, true and kind. Perhaps they were, before they were taught, in love, war, ambition, and commerce, by the hazel, grey, green, and all the evil shades of blue. Bob Cleaves was put up in the spare room for the night after Billy had exhausted the evening and a couple of neighbour cronies telling them all how he and Bob at first met in London, and the times, up and down, and the larks they had had together. One of the cronies listened in silence for an hour or so, and then clinched it—the silence—by saying, “Oh, well, what about havin’ a half-pint afore bed?” Bob had been a school child with some of them, but none remembered him favourably, if at all. At the beerhouse Bob was introduced all round; and Billy had a quiet talk with him on the way back, and under the hedge, during which Bob kept saying, “Don’t you bother, Billy,” “I can put up anywheres,” “You always were bothering about me,” “I tell you I’ll be alright,” etc., etc.
That night there was a whispered consultation between Billy and Lizzie in bed. “A lot o’ whisperin’ goin’ on,” as guests say under similar and other circumstances. “A hell of a lot er whisperin’ goin’ on,” as our Bill or Jim might say. And next morning Billy had another quiet talk with Bob, and Bob stayed on till Billy got him a job at the brickfields. And Bob stayed on as a boarder. It was a practical proposal, and Lizzie agreed to it; it was as easy to do for two as one, she said. Perhaps it occurred to her vaguely that the thing might make a little talk. It did. Paying boarders didn’t come to the hutches every season. The women were indifferent to Bob, but viciously envious—keen on the subject. The men were not interested. And the men were always very conservative with regard to things which were likely to make talk in the village. They got too much of it at meal times and in bed. It was talk that drove one of them to drink and the dogs after twenty years of sober married life. He was the hopeless village sot. But they were a steady class, and not easily driven, as a rule—except in the case of two husbands who were last heard of in Tasmania and New Zealand. The survivors were adverse to others being driven abroad, because, although it eased the labour market, it made more talk. They preferred extra hardship to extra talk.
Bob didn’t talk at all, but was none the more popular for that; you see he “wasn’t a woman” —jest a labourer like themselves, and “no better than none of ’em.” Bob had been “parculiar” from the little that they remembered of him at school. He was supposed to “have notions.” He was supposed to be a come-by-chance, “found under a gooseberry bush” —his father unknown, and his “mother” or “aunt” doubtful in both cases. He was supposed to be the son of—some one. He was supposed to be related to——. He was supposed to be somebody-of-importance’s brother, nephew, or something. But, as far as I could hear, he was never supposed to be a shy, sensitive, self- and village-tortured child, of higher inherited intelligence than the rest.
Anyway, he was sent or taken to London by his mother, or whatever she was, and forgotten.
Poor little Billy was bursting with secrets, several big, astounding ones, which comforted and held him up, no doubt, at periods when Bob seemed slighted or extra unpopular. Big secrets about Bob takin’ him into a London newspaper buildin’, and showing him round the basement. Astounding secret about Bob slipping him in behind the scenes of a theayter one morning. Bob had been probably lumper or messenger, or one of a legion of imps and devils, in one place, and super, or possibly call boy, in another. The secret that Bob had been married was a secret that Billy didn’t want, and had no use for. All he knew was that the marriage had been a mess, a bad job all round, and that was sufficient for Billy. Bob had his big, honest sympathy, and it would have been the same had the wife been an angel and Bob a fiend in married life, and Billy had known it. Billy didn’t know anything about married life, and never offered an opinion concerning it either one way or the other.
He was bound to keep the other’s secrets, because, once out, they would have led to many questions and speculations, and may have made one or two fiendships. And Bob didn’t want either talk or appreciation. Billy’s was too much, but Bob bore with him, when he couldn’t get away from it. Billy was “too good to be hurt or put down.”
His leisure life seemed almost a clause of appreciation and attendance round Bob Cleaves, and the others forebore unkind or sarcastic comments for Billy’s sake. Besides, they went in fear of Bob’s grammar and pronunciation.
Lizzie admitted to Billy, in a nothing-of-consequence tone, that she didn’t like Bob at first—couldn’t stand him, in fact. But she didn’t mind him now. When Billy, puzzled, asked why, she said, “Oh, nothing in particular.” Bob had done nothing to her. Billy confided to Bob, seizing a favourable moment, “It’s alright, Bob, she’s beginning t’ like yer now.”
The talk went on amongst the women, lowering and resentful, also impatient, because “nothing seemed to come of it.”
There was a woman, in as near the centre of the row of brick dog kennels as possible, who had a hunchbacked daughter, which daughter seemed physically and mentally more a birth of her mother’s warped, twisted and evil mind than of her body, which was straight and healthy enough. But she had given her her face. These two were the guardians of the village morality, or immorality, when there was a sign of it, and they kept watch and ward by turns day and night. It was seldom, after dark, but one or the other evil neck was craned over the front hedge, with the pinched and twisted face turning this way and that, to the discomfiture of chance passersby strolling along pipe in mouth in the dusk, and unaware of the existence of such sinister creatures hereabouts.
A newly-made widow in the other half of their hutch, whose sweet went out of her life with her husband, started a lolly and tobacco shop in the front parlour. And the evil ones never rested nor let their man rest until they started their evil window in opposition. But they couldn’t get a boarder like Lizzie. “Just fancy the likes o’ her ’avin’ a boarder—an’ Billy not seein’ what that was for.”
The husband and father was an elderly labouring man, solid and heavy, such as often drive tip-drays, in moleskins, Crimean shirt, with belts and “bowyang,” out here on waterworks, with pipe and handkerchief stuck in belt behind, like a small pistol, to shoot out a boil in his mouth, and a rag to wipe his mouth afterwards. (Any labouring face will do him, so long as the mouth is a nasty one.)
A month or so went by, or some say weeks, and then one beautiful moonlight evening Brennan, the silent man, with Reynolds’ Newspaper, after listening to Billy and Bob for some minutes, steadied his pipe with his hand and said—
“Look here, Billy, if I was you I wouldn’t have Bob stayin’ with yer.”
“W-why?” gasped Billy, taken too suddenly to gain time by asking, “What’s that?”
“Never mind, Billy, it ain’t right. I know more’n you do. Take my advice.”
“But, man alive, what ’arm ’as Bob——”
“It ain’t the ’arm as is done, but the ’arm made on it, and,” he added, half mumbling his pipe, “the ’arm as might come of it.”
“What?” said Billy, promptly and sharply for him, but perhaps unconsciously so.
“Now, look here, Billy. I know more of the world ‘n you do. You’ve been knocking around London for years, and been abroad, if the truth is known” —(Billy blushed and started) “an’ me ain’t more’n once or twist a week for an hour or so in ther fruit ‘n crop season. But I know more’n you do about men an’ women. If you took an’ knocked about the world for a lifetime, an’ me rooted here, I’d know more about the world an’ you do, Billy. Take my advice, an’ talk to Bob quietly, an’ tell him there’s talk. There’s other places where he’ll do—where he’d be comfortable, I mean.” And Brennan jerked impatiently and stood up at the same time. Billy began—
“Why, who the——has been—a——?”
“It’s no use, Billy,” said the silent man, with the clamp still on. “It’s for your own good—an’ some one else’s. Now I’ve said it all.”
“Do you mean——?”
“I don’t mean—to say—one—more—word, Billy, You know me, Billy. I’m your friend in this.” Billy left, rubbing his head, bothered and worried on Bob’s account, without yet understanding, and he concluded by wondering what on earth had come over Arthur Brennan. But Brennan was always a rum card.
But, strange to relate, that very week, and within such short times of each other that it fairly twirled poor little Billy’s head, three of the other men gave or hinted or blurted out the same advice, according to their different “ways.”
And on top of it all, and, of all men, Leonard, standing as described at his side-back-front gate (there was another leading out towards Halliford), called the passing Billy back, and, after an unwonted pause, said, with a preface, almost the same things, in the same words, and in the same manner—save for the watch-dog smile and the “sayin’ is” —and with the same pipe play, as had Brennan.
“Look here, Billy, as the sayin’ is, I don’t want to interfere with the village, as the sayin’ is—nor anybody’s private affairs, as the sayin’ is—but I know more about the world ’n you do, Billy, as the sayin’ is, though you have knocked about London, as the sayin’ is, an’ been abroad, as the sayin’ is— as the sayin’ is. But I’d advise you to get rid of that there Bob, as the sayin’ is. No!—now I’ve got nothing against him, as the sayin’ is, but there’s talk, as the sayin’ is, and I don’t like smash-ups in the village, as the sayin’ is. It—it will interfere with the rents, as the sayin’ is, and leads to intruptions with farm work at an awkward time, as the sayin’ is. And I can’t build and keep up village for nothing, as the sayin’ is. Besides, you’re a good tenant, and so is the Higgins, as the sayin’ is. Take my advice, as the sayin’ is, an’ let Bob go and get married, an’ settle down like the rest of ’em, as the sayin’ is. There’ll be boys wanted for the farm yet, as the sayin’ is, and girls too. A—a kick’s as good as a wink to a blind horse, as the sayin’ is.”
Even then poor little Billy felt a “catch” of triumph for his friend in the knowledge that Bob had been married, and drew a breath of relief before he knew it, “as the sayin’ is.”
Then, when little Billy pulled himself together, he set to work at once to get to the root of the matter; and did, after several whispered and determined interviews, that very night.
“So it’s that——old bitch an’ her henchbeck daughter. I might a-known it wi’out askin’. God forgive Billy! but I’ve heerd Bob hisself say, ‘Never trust a dwarf, or a hunchback, or a cripple.’” Then he went in to Lizzie.
He started to broach the subject delicately, and found great difficulty, but presently he got at it, without knowing it. He was somewhat surprised to find that she had known about the talk all along, but had considered it less than nothing in particular, and didn’t want to be bothered listening about it. But Billy forgot his surprise in his anger on Bob’s account, and he warmed up to the thing.
“God forgive Billy! but I’ll show’m I ain’t agoin’ to have that——old woman an’ her henchback daughter acomin’ atween Bob an’ you an’ me. Bob was my chum arter I broke wi’ Tom an’ all on ’em first time. We was chums and pals in London. Bob came arter I broke wi’ Tom last time—or—at—least arter that—— sister-in-law o’ mine broke it for us.” Then with more loss of control. “We was warm, we was—me an’ Tom. We never had a dry word afore that——sister-in-law o’ mine came atween us. She’d a come atween me an’ you. She tried hard. She set Tom agin you, Lizzie. An’ she visits that——old slut with the henchbeck daughter. God forgive Billy! An’ now they’d set me agin Bob. An’ me an’ Bob never had a dry word yet. God forgive Billy! But I’ll show ’m.” Then with a change of the weather and a return to calmness. “Don’t you take no notice, Lizzie, me girl. It was all because you walked home from Shepperton wi’ Bob that night. Now, I’ll show ’m. (Impressively.) You walk home from Shepperton with Bob as often as he’s goin’ that way, when I’m not at home to walk to Shepperton wi’ yer. You take a walk out with Bob if yer want a walk an’ he’s willin’, an’ I’m at ther bricks an’ not able to take a stroll with yer. Jest to show’m, Lizzie. Bob’s talk won’t do yer no ’arm, Lizzie. There’s gipsies and tramps, an’—I was obliged to Bob that night, Lizzie, I was. Jest to show’m. I’ve never been mixed with no talk in my life before like this, an’ I won’t. But we’ll show’m, Lizzie, an’ look here, Lizzie, me lass, you can let ‘em know I told yer, if yer like, just to let ’em know what I think on it.”
Lizzie said she wouldn’t be bothered. “But we must be bothered about things like this, Lizzie. But don’t you forgit. We’ll show’m. Don’t you worry. You jest do as I tell yer.”
Lizzie said she wouldn’t worry.
“God forgive Billy,” he said, rendered desperate by her utter indifference towards the man he really worshipped, “God forgive Billy! but Bob—Bob saved my life with the feaver in—in Australia, as I never talk about—an’ pulled me through, an’—an’ help me home—an’—an’ God forgive Billy! Bob’s married, an’ had trouble, an’—an’—Lizzie—has got a kid—a little girl—with some people in Australia, as he’s slavin’ for, an’—breakin’ his heart for. Who’d think any harm o’ Bob. But we’ll show’m, Lizzie.”
It was a mistake. There were no signs of a little baby with a smile yet.
“Well, why did he come away for?” asked Lizzie.
“She left him,” said Billy.
“Well, wasn’t he rid of her?”
“No,” said Billy, “she took him to court for desertin’ her, and made him pay to keep ’er, an’ when ’e couldn’t pay she put him in gaol. An’ if he goes back without all the money he didn’t send ’er, she’ll put ‘im in gaol again.”
“But how could she do that if she ran away from him?” asked Lizzie. “Y’ talkin’ nonsense.”
“God forgive Billy! It’s the way the law is out there,” said Billy. “Now, don’t you understand?”
But Lizzie said she didn’t understand it at all.
“His talk won’t do you no harm,” said little Billy with resentful pride in his friend. The tall man without the smile, who didn’t talk, could speak earnestly on occasion. Maybe he had once been earnest. He could speak sincerely and sympathetically and kindly of the troubles of others—no doubt he had been sincere, sympathetic and practically kind. Such a man could talk love and seem true, even to a self-loving and vanity-blinded woman. Perhaps he had once been true. He could speak quietly, strongly and very decisively in a misunderstanding, no matter on whose side, and be very impressive. Maybe he had once been a dangerous man in anger. He could make it appear, without saying so, that he had been through more trouble than most men, and in this he was a great relief to the man or woman who cannot be content to be met halfway by the trouble of others, so to speak, but charge, and dodge, and try every way which a rapid tongue can do to break through, outflank and take in the rear the others’ defences—and for what good? But anyway, he was a dangerous man with any woman (perhaps unconsciously or half consciously dangerous), the more so because he was incapable, no matter how hard he tried, of constancy. But he may once, and for years, have been domesticated, affectionate, a kind husband and father, and a gentleman in every sense of the word. He may once have believed in himself. Mrs. Coxgrave, the woman with the red hair rheumatic husband, and no child, was on several occasions interrupted, and once by the maternal snake, too, talking earnestly to him in the bar when her husband was laid up above stairs. And it made no talk—“They was only talkin’ about rheumatism.” I wonder now if——
The evil neck and faces craned over the little quick-set hedges, looking both ways in vain, till one bright afternoon Bob, who avoided the house during Billy’s absence, came out of the Farmers’ Arms from a silent half-pint, just as Lizzie was passing on her way to Shepperton for a piece of silk for a belt that a new blouse was “waitin’ on,” and Bob being going there too, as Defoe would put it, for a pair of working boots, and being already turned in that direction, and the eyes of both hags being on them, there was nothing for it but to walk to Shepperton together. Then one evil neck and head was seen over hedges and through gaps going in the direction of Sumpthin-on-Mud, like a swimming snake’s head showing out of green water at times, and the other was left on watch. Later on, at dusk, both necks and heads were over the fence, turning, turtle-like, and seeming also curiously turtle-like, as if the creatures were in torture.
But it was Billy who returned with Her Nothing-in-particularness, having joined her where the Four Lanes met, on his happy strolling way home from the bricks. And his smile came too.
The necks and heads retired to their back hole to confer. She (Lizzie) was carryin’ it off well—they’d say that much for her. Or it had all come out, and Bob was gone, and they was hidin’ it. Or Billy was actin’, though no one would have dreamed it of Billy, of all men in the world. “But,” said the elder and more experienced snake, “you could never tell them sort of men. There was that there little Wells when his missus was carrying on with, etc., etc. Anyway, if Billy warn’t actin’ it was a cryin’ shame; some of the chaps ought to——She’d do it herself in a minit if they thought Billy’d bleave a word agenst——But there, there was no thanks or credit in being mixed up with sich dirty affairs.”
So a couple of months went by, or say some weeks, and Billy coming home very tired one evening found no tea ready, for the first time; but Lizzie came in shortly afterwards, having walked home with Bob, who dropped into the Farmers’ Arms—which were never stretched out for him, by the way—for his silent half-pint. There seemed something savagely defiant in his manner that evening. A week or so later the same thing occurred again, and it occurred to Billy that Lizzie was “carrying the thing on.”
Then one evening Billy went to the kilns to watch the fires all night, and a lump of shale fell on his foot, hurting it badly, and he came limping home with a mate an hour or so later. The house was in darkness, and Lizzie was not upstairs with one of her occasional nothing-in-particular headaches. The men and women conferred, and he was told that she had gone to Shepperton.
“Well, where’s Bob, then?” said Billy.
After hesitating, shuffling, a little bluffing, and a hustling of Billy into bed by the women, it was admitted that Bob had gone too.
But the news of Billy’s accident went clod-hopping to Shepperton shortly afterwards, with the farm hand that went for the doctor, and got to Lizzie’s ears, and she came hurrying home. And Billy, being in pain, they had dry words after the doctor had gone, and, as poor Mrs. Higgins put it afterwards, they “said things to each other as they couldn’t forget,” which, summed up, with the sad warning added thereto, will go further, I hope, than poor Mrs. Higgins ever dreamed of it going.
But to Billy the worst result of the dry words was that Bob overheard—or was told—probably by one of the necks and heads over the fence, the only seeming signs of human being in sight when he came home, rather hurriedly, and of whom he inquired the particulars of Billy’s accident. Bob went to Halliford that night, and arranged to board and lodge with a silent old couple of whom he’d heard—or, rather, not heard, so to speak. Billy did his best when he recovered, but Bob was never the same to him, and Billy’s sorrow for it was deep and sincere.
“They was warm, they was. They never had a dry word until d——d cacklin’, kack-kak-kakin’ ole hags came atween ’em.”
And they’d come atween him and Lizzie too, it seemed. She was more careful of the home and Billy than ever—in that damnedly pointed way that open-hearted little Billy couldn’t understand. And his heart began to break with sorrow and anxiety. He was no match for her. Her manner led from “Now, Lizzie, me lass” to dry words; so in the end she wouldn’t even tell him that there wasn’t nothing in particular the matter with her, and it frightened him as much as when she had told him so, and obstinately refused to enter into details, saying she couldn’t be bothered.
Then things began to be hinted to him about Bob’s character, and at last plainly, things that he “oughter been told,” about Bob and Coxgrave’s wife having been seen together in an out-of-the-way place and an out-of-the-way time. And his heart began to change towards Bob. But, God forgive Billy! never a doubt of Lizzie.
Lizzie had never been able to get on with her mother, so there was no hope for poor Billy in that quarter. They’d have to fight it out between themselves, as she and Higgins had to do, arter they’d started and meant to go on in the same way.
Then the drifting hopelessly apart, as it seems to the husband, of a couple that had ever been hopelessly apart. The sickening suspicion (how long and cruelly it takes to become a settled, serviceable, useful, fruit-bearing certainty) that his wife doesn’t love him any longer, the wife who never loved him at all; that she doesn’t want him, she who never did, and only married him on impulse, or for vanity, or caprice, or to be her own mistress in a home of her own, or because of rows at home, or because somebody else wanted him or her, or didn’t want her, or through disappointment, chagrin, or spite. What fools men are! Or because, only, of his looks, money, position, name, or fame. The soulsickening suspicion and fright of the good, kind, generous, or “soft” husband, that his wife wants to get rid of him—the wife who had an eye to that contingency from the first, and had started wanting to get rid of him early. The blindness, the pitiful, unmanly pleading of the husband whose wife is not, and never was, fit to blacken his boots, who never had a sincerely kind thought or considerate moment for him. When the only cure is separation to a distance, a year or two to recover, and a stern and life-long adherence to the creed or philosophy of unforgiveness.
Then the paltry, useless, wasting quarrels. “I didn’t want to marry you” . . . “Better men than you,” and so on, and wearyingly so on, to the exasperating, maddening and sickening and ruining unending of it all.
Billy was a little man who used to run out of the house, and through a gap in the back hedge, and round through brooks, over stiles and gates, across lanes, and so in a circle home, when very much upset. Lizzie’s persistent silence used to make him do this. Some men have wives who nag eternally; others will wait on them for days in obstinate, idiotic silence.
Lizzie considered in a practical, nothing-in-particular way that she might have to see a doctor about Billy’s head if he went on like that, and that the doctor might have to put him in the mad-house if he got too bad. They call a spade a spade amongst Lizzie’s class in England.
Some wives “never quarrel,” but can drive any husband mad, all the same; so one day Billy suddenly felt his arm stiffen and hand clench!. . . . He wrenched himself out of the kitchen in time, and from the verge of “It,” and half ran all the way to Shepperton, having stumbled into the Farmers’ Arms to borrow a cap, which the Farmers’ Arms hastened to lend him without question, and with a rough show of understanding. But neither the Farmers’ Arms nor Billy understood yet, though the Arms thought it did. Billy was soon to understand. He caught the train for London with a wild idea of going to some people he’d been “warm” with—but never so warm as he’d been with Bob.
Then the reaction came, and Billy began to think, wildly at first, but he began to think, and the elastic reins of Fate to draw him back, and the more he thought, the stronger they drew, and the more the home he was warm in seemed to ward him off and repel him. He had never yet carried his troubles outside his own home—his father’s, brother’s, or his own—and his head and limbs gave an impatient jerk of shame at the sharp, sudden thought of having contemplated doing so now.
Then “Lizzie.” Then “poor Lizzie!” Then the swift review of his married life, which had been happy compared with past homes and life. Then the horror of “It” (the stiffened arm and clenched fist) struck him with full force in all its sickening, stomach chilling hideousness. The horror that It might happen; but he would see to that.
He got out of the train at Waterloo, but would not go back the same way. He hurried across to the Staines line platform, and caught a train there. That would give him time to think, and calm down. Glimpse of slanting lights on sinister dark water somewhere. He had been a lunatic, a brute, etc. He could see it all now. Lizzie was the best little wife in the world. All her good points were remembered, or imagined, and his bad qualities loomed and ran before him on the same line. . . . Then the thought that perhaps he’d lost her affections for good and all. But—God forgive Billy!—he’d win her back. . . . Then the thought—the black, tormenting, devilish one. . . . The thought of the Thing sent him sick to the stomach.
And it was only natural—“A woman must have summon.” He took hurried, insane comfort in finding all excuses for Something he feared might happen. Perhaps he had been driving her to summon else’s arms all the time in his cursed blindness and obstinacy. If he only had Bob to talk to! But then he had driven Bob away from him too. . . . It was only natural; a woman would go to summon sooner or later. But he——He got up and leaned out of the window, and looked ahead with wild nervousness. Then he sat down determinedly, and glanced round quietly, ashamed of his foolishness. The carriage was full, but it was not that; Billy was alone. You can be more alone in an English railway carriage than in any other place in the world. He filled his pipe and lit it as stolidly as the rest, but it was not “acting.” Then It all came over again. And the wheels: “Too late—too—late—too late—God forgive Billy! God forgive Billy! God forgive Billy!” Bricks and bricks, and lights and streets, and “circuses” swinging. Suburbs and bridges and houses and gardens, and “grounds” and a village, and the London road, and avenues, hedges and fields and lights and river. He took his hand from his pipe, clamping it decisively. Flashes of reason and comfort—“Too late—too late—too late—God forgive Billy—God forgive Billy, God forgive Billy.”
The house was shut up and dark, and Lizzie not upstairs, but the signs of having changed her dress hurriedly were in the room. Its very cleanliness rebuked him. This was the first time he’d run out so long, and she’d got anxious and gone to Shepperton to look for him, of course. Her mother’s home was shut up, so she wasn’t there. But Lizzie was not the one to go to her mother with her troubles, and Billy felt a pang of shame that he had with his. She’d hear in Shepperton that he’d gone in the London train, of course, and was waiting there for him, at a friend’s place no doubt. He walked sanely on towards Shepperton. Just before he reached the Four Lanes he saw some one ahead, coming towards him, and in a sudden wave of shame he slipped into the ditch—he had often done that as a lad, but when in mischief. The couple came close, and a feeling of curiosity and mischief came to Billy. It was a happy relief. He drew himself up and laid against the grassy bank of the six-foot ditch. The blurred couple came nearer. “Danged if it ain’t that skangtimonious painter’s daughter with her fiddle lesson,” thought Billy. “I’d ’a took her for Lizzie in a minute. An’ who’s him? An’ who’d ’a thought it? I wonder what the henchbeck and her daughter’s bin doin’ with their time?”
They came closer, hip to hip, the girl walking haltingly and awkwardly, as girls do when held tightly in such a position. They paused nearly opposite Billy’s eyes in the grass, and the man seemed trying to draw the girl aside to the shadow of the opposite hedge, where there was a gate—and some words were spoken. Then Billy was out and at him, and Lizzie, in her new hat, walking rapidly towards “Chawlton.” She had dropped the cardboard box as if it were nothing in particular—a holly spray, perhaps.
There was another man in the ditch who crept and ran along the bottom of it. The taller of the two went down, of course, in the unexpectedness of the attack. He got up, threw out his hands blindly and went down again; he was slow this time and started to get up “gropin’ like,” the watcher said. “when the little ’un laid ’olt on ’im, tryin’ to lift ’im an’ workin’ an’ bustin’ hisself like a loon-antic.” No doubt Bob was stricken and handicapped with the swift consciousness of his own guiltiness, and it flashed through his mind, at the first blow, that it was vengeance and not footpads that had him.
“God forgive Billy? Get up, you ———? Get up, you———? God forgive ———. Are you hurt, you — —— ———? Are you hurt, you ——— ———? Say it—or—I’ll—I’ll——” Bob said “No.” A “naw ” was sorter jerked out in ’im, the watcher said. Billy slipped round behind him, got his hands under his armpits and strove to lift him.
Then suddenly, Billy let him down on his back and started to run. “He run like a lunatic, towards ‘Sumpthin-on-the-Mud.’ ” “An’ it was well he did,” said the watcher. “There were a stake layin’ alongst ’andy ’an I saw the little ’un glare at it sideways as if it was a snake—or a peeler’s helmet over the hedge——” (he was a poacher) “’n then the ’orrors seemed to come on him an’ he runned. I never seed a man run like ’im. He runned tords Sumpthin-on-Mud.”
Bob got up, groped for his hat, turned to all Four Lanes, hesitated a moment, and then started to walk swiftly towards “Chawlton.”
Little Billy, panting, stumbled into the gutter of Sumpthin-on-Mud, scrambled up, and knocked at his brother’s door. There was a light in the “top front winder.”
Tom came down and let Billy in without a word, and closed the door behind him.
“’Old me, Tom! ’old me!—All this night!”
Tom struck another match, keeping one hand on Billy’s shoulder. Then he lit the lamp—and, the oldsideboard, the old armchair, the old prints, and all the old things that were the old folks’ started out in the darkness in the close little room.
Rose came down in an old chintz wrapper, uncovered the fire, put some kindling wood and the kettle on, set out bread and cheese, and, at a jerk of Tom’s head, went upstairs again. Then Billy got up restlessly.
“I—I must go out ’n walk up an’ down in the yard a bit, Tom,” he said.
“All right, Billy—I’ll go out with you.”
“I ain’t going away, Tom.”
“It’s all right, Billy, I’ll go out with yer. I’ll take me pipe an’ have a smoke in the open.”
Tom sat down on the old stump outside, and Billy walked to and fro rapidly.
He raved, maudlingly, at first. “I tries to be a good husband t’her, Tom!—I did try——” Then incoherently and insanely. Strange to say he never mentioned Bob’s name. It was as though Bob were a detail—a forgotten accident, or the unknown man or men in Billy’s great life trouble. Tom smoked in silence until the first likely interval.
“Billy, where’s your pipe?” he said, smoking his.
“I—I can’t smoke, Tom!—Tom—I did try——”
“You can smoke while you’re walkin’ up an’ down. Gimme your pipe.” Tom filled the pipe.
“Now light up.”
Presently Billy sat down on the wash-stool and said: “You go into bed now, Tom, you’ve got to go to work in the morning. I’m all right. I’ll be in presently.”
“And what about you?” said Tom. “You’ve let your pipe go out—here, catch the matches.”
“I’ll go in now, Tom, I’m only keeping you up.”
Billy sat down in the armchair. Tom on another, smoking and thinking. Presently Billy lifted his head, and his eyes went wide and wild, like a grief-stricken woman’s, round the room, and his hands rested loosely on the arms of the chair.
“To think I’m sittin’ here in mother’s chair like this t’night, Tom!—like this t’night——”
Tom puffed once or twice.
“Poor mother,” he muttered, “she didn’t last long arter you went, Billy—she didn’t lay long, she warn’t one of that sort. An’ we didn’t keep her long, not more’n two days. Work slack, wages low, an’ Rose down with little Tommy. Poor mother! all her thoughts were o’ you, Billy.”
Billy’s hopeless eyes went round the room again. Sideboard, china shepherd and shepherdess, crochet-work, shells, coral, model of Dover under glass (very like the real Dover, with toy houses and white and vivid green), chairs with antimacassars, and holland covers, and father on the wall to the left of fireplace, and mother on the wall to right. Billy as a baby, Billy as a boy. Tom as a boy, Billy and Tom together as boys. Jane as a baby, Jane as a girl, Jane and Willie and Tom as children. Aunt Caroline, Uncle Will, and the rest about. Billy’s head went slowly down. Tom stood by the chair, laid his hand on his head and ruffled it, as he’d done in his best moods when a boy. The head went right down on the hollow of the arm, as it had done in grief when a boy—the hand stuck up in mute appeal. Tom laid his pipe on the table, hurriedly for him, and took that hand in his own great hard one.
Billy was quiet in the morning. Tom stood over him at breakfast and made him eat—much the same as he’d made him do most things when they were boys. Then he said, “Now fill your pipe and get your hat, Billy, an’ come along.”
Tom had been out early, or had got what we call a bush telegraphy or mulga wire, for when they reached the Four Lanes he said—
“Now, Billy, she’s gone, and taken her things. You go and make the best you can with Leonard about the rent and the furniture, and come back to my place to-night. Rose will take care of yer. And look here, Billy, if you want to go away, I’ll help you, and one or two others. To Australia again, if you like. Say the word.”
“No,” says Billy, “I run away once in a family mess, an’ left it all to you an’ mother—to the other end of the world. An’ God forgive Billy! I’ll see it out this time, Tom.”
“Gi’ me y’hand, Billy,” said Tom. “That’s the way to talk. I ain’t felt so proud of you since you stood up to young Scroggins at school. Now I must git to work.” And he turned Billy towards Chawlton, and started him off with a slap on the back.
Leonard took the furniture from Billy, in return for the loss of rent and a tenant.
“Well, Billy, as the sayin’ is, all I’ve got to say, as the sayin’ is, is that I told you so, as the sayin’ is. I knew it all along, as the sayin’ is, and saw it comin’, as the sayin’ is. But you wouldn’t take my advice, as the sayin’ is, and—and you’ve only got yourself to blame, as the sayin’ is. But I’ll say no more about it, as the sayin’ is, an’ as the fruit season’s on, as the sayin’ is, I’ll take yer on with Brennan and the horses and the wagons, as the sayin’ is, and—and you can sleep in the house if you like till I get a tenant, as the sayin’ is.”
Think of the last favour!
There are unwritten laws amongst men in English lanes as well as in the Bush. Bob had a woman to keep now, and Billy none, so there was no reason why he should leave his job or be displaced in favour of Billy, even if Billy had wished it. It was all otherwise.
But the brick-makers, becoming used to Bob’s grammar and punctuation, chaffed him about Lizzie until the heavy labouring man, who made nasty remarks, tried them on Bob once. Bob knocked him down without a word, glance, or gesture of warning.
“Lie there, you ———!” he said through his teeth. “You——— ! If it had not have been for your wife and daughter, I’d not have been living with another man’s wife to-day!”
When Lizzie left Bob, which she did as if it was nothing in particular to do, she went to housekeep for a widower in Staines, where, I believe, she was some class, and respected by tradespeople, and looked up to by upper maids.
I heard some more of the story in Nineteen Three, coming along down by Italy, which looks like our own coast, on board the N.D.L. Gera. Billy was aboard—no matter how. I had had chats with him, and a little talk with Tom. Tom and I understood each other without asking questions. Bob, I knew, by one of the merest accidents that always happen in London (or on the road past Suez), was aboard the Karlshruhe, a fortnight ahead. There was another man aboard the Gera—the old suspected Chawlton poacher, George Bowels. Yes, there were poachers at Chawlton. I know, because I have been accessory both before and after the fact, and only lack of experience prevented me from aiding and abetting. However, I’ve been sort of volunteer, or anauthorised scout, once or twice, sort of noncommissioned spy. The silent language of wrong-doing is learnt and understood like lightning. Wonderful, isn’t it? They reckoned I was a gent, and would never give them away: the first time I felt proud of being a gent in England.
George, or Jarge, Bowels was going to Australia as William Southern, an alias that prepossessed me in his favour. Billy and he were shipmates comfortably enough, and neither spoke of the Chawlton in the other’s presence, that I could hear. But I got Bowels in a confidential mood one beautiful evening on the fo’c’le head, while Billy was playing cards.
Jarge came to the subject promptly and cheerfully.
“Yes, I was in the ditch, an’ see it all. Yes, we as ’as to ’ide in ditches at nights sees many things. We often sees what bigger folk ’ud lose. That Lizzie wasn’t no good, she wasn’t, and ’ad a child in Lunnen afore ever she seed ‘Smilin’ Billy.’ I knowed it all, though I was never class enough for any on ’em. Me own sisternlaw took care on the child in Lunnen; it died er the measles. Summon Billy’s wadges wenter pay, I guess. But Lizzie hadden’ done nawthin’ with Bob Cleaves that night—not yit. I seed ’em meet at the Four Lanes—’e comin’ from the bricks an’ she from Shepperton. He gin ’er a start, an’ then when he stooped t’ speak she up an’ kissed ’im like it warn’t nothing in particular. Then he grabbed ’er an’ seemed to lose ’is ’ed. But they ’addin’ done nawthin’ yit; I heered all the talk. Then she seemed a bit scared o’ ’im, but kep’ ’er ’ed. She allers kep’ it. An’ she pulled in towards Chawlton, an’ pulled ’im on with ’er, tellin’ ’im to be sensible like a good feller. Oh, but ’e was warm, ’e was. Nattrel; bin away from women a long time, I believe. An’ then Billy outs o’ his ditch an’ at ’em. . . . But wot d’ye want to bother about either on ’em for. ’E was a ’ot ’un, an’ she no good, an’ Billy a fool—as bigger fool as Coxgrave. Why, I seed ’er—Mrs. Coxgrave an’ Bob Cleaves—but I could ’a talked, I could. We as ’as to ’ide in ditches sees rum things sometimes. But wot d’ye wanter bother about the like ’er them? I could give yer boggins t’ write on, ony day in the week, if that’s wot yer want. We as ’ide in ditches— Why, I could tell y’r——”
Some one got up from the other side of the stanchion, and went down on deck. It was Billy, who had come up from cards feeling squeamish, and sat there.
At Suez we heard that the Karlshruhe had lost a blade on a sandbank, and we’d probably catch up to her on the voyage. And Bob aboard. What would it be—fight or silent handshake?