A Fragment of Life, by Arthur Machen

Chapter 1

Edward Darnell awoke from a dream of an ancient wood, and of a clear well rising into grey film and vapour beneath a misty, glimmering heat; and as his eyes opened he saw the sunlight bright in the room, sparkling on the varnish of the new furniture. He turned and found his wife’s place vacant, and with some confusion and wonder of the dream still lingering in his mind, he rose also, and began hurriedly to set about his dressing, for he had overslept a little, and the ’bus passed the corner at 9.15. He was a tall, thin man, dark-haired and dark-eyed, and in spite of the routine of the City, the counting of coupons, and all the mechanical drudgery that had lasted for ten years, there still remained about him the curious hint of a wild grace, as if he had been born a creature of the antique wood, and had seen the fountain rising from the green moss and the grey rocks.

The breakfast was laid in the room on the ground floor, the back room with the French windows looking on the garden, and before he sat down to his fried bacon he kissed his wife seriously and dutifully. She had brown hair and brown eyes, and though her lovely face was grave and quiet, one would have said that she might have awaited her husband under the old trees, and bathed in the pool hollowed out of the rocks.

They had a good deal to talk over while the coffee was poured out and the bacon eaten, and Darnell’s egg brought in by the stupid, staring servant-girl of the dusty face. They had been married for a year, and they had got on excellently, rarely sitting silent for more than an hour, but for the past few weeks Aunt Marian’s present had afforded a subject for conversation which seemed inexhaustible. Mrs. Darnell had been Miss Mary Reynolds, the daughter of an auctioneer and estate agent in Notting Hill, and Aunt Marian was her mother’s sister, who was supposed rather to have lowered herself by marrying a coal merchant, in a small way, at Turnham Green. Marian had felt the family attitude a good deal, and the Reynoldses were sorry for many things that had been said, when the coal merchant saved money and took up land on building leases in the neighbourhood of Crouch End, greatly to his advantage, as it appeared. Nobody had thought that Nixon could ever do very much; but he and his wife had been living for years in a beautiful house at Barnet, with bow-windows, shrubs, and a paddock, and the two families saw but little of each other, for Mr. Reynolds was not very prosperous. Of course, Aunt Marian and her husband had been asked to Mary’s wedding, but they had sent excuses with a nice little set of silver apostle spoons, and it was feared that nothing more was to be looked for. However, on Mary’s birthday her aunt had written a most affectionate letter, enclosing a cheque for a hundred pounds from ‘Robert’ and herself, and ever since the receipt of the money the Darnells had discussed the question of its judicious disposal. Mrs. Darnell had wished to invest the whole sum in Government securities, but Mr. Darnell had pointed out that the rate of interest was absurdly low, and after a good deal of talk he had persuaded his wife to put ninety pounds of the money in a safe mine, which was paying five per cent. This was very well, but the remaining ten pounds, which Mrs. Darnell had insisted on reserving, gave rise to legends and discourses as interminable as the disputes of the schools.

At first Mr. Darnell had proposed that they should furnish the ‘spare’ room. There were four bedrooms in the house: their own room, the small one for the servant, and two others overlooking the garden, one of which had been used for storing boxes, ends of rope, and odd numbers of ‘Quiet Days’ and ‘Sunday Evenings,’ besides some worn suits belonging to Mr. Darnell which had been carefully wrapped up and laid by, as he scarcely knew what to do with them. The other room was frankly waste and vacant, and one Saturday afternoon, as he was coming home in the ’bus, and while he revolved that difficult question of the ten pounds, the unseemly emptiness of the spare room suddenly came into his mind, and he glowed with the idea that now, thanks to Aunt Marian, it could be furnished. He was busied with this delightful thought all the way home, but when he let himself in, he said nothing to his wife, since he felt that his idea must be matured. He told Mrs. Darnell that, having important business, he was obliged to go out again directly, but that he should be back without fail for tea at half-past six; and Mary, on her side, was not sorry to be alone, as she was a little behindhand with the household books. The fact was, that Darnell, full of the design of furnishing the spare bedroom, wished to consult his friend Wilson, who lived at Fulham, and had often given him judicious advice as to the laying out of money to the very best advantage. Wilson was connected with the Bordeaux wine trade, and Darnell’s only anxiety was lest he should not be at home.

However, it was all right; Darnell took a tram along the Goldhawk Road, and walked the rest of the way, and was delighted to see Wilson in the front garden of his house, busy amongst his flower-beds.

‘Haven’t seen you for an age,’ he said cheerily, when he heard Darnell’s hand on the gate; ‘come in. Oh, I forgot,’ he added, as Darnell still fumbled with the handle, and vainly attempted to enter. ‘Of course you can’t get in; I haven’t shown it you.’

It was a hot day in June, and Wilson appeared in a costume which he had put on in haste as soon as he arrived from the City. He wore a straw hat with a neat pugaree protecting the back of his neck, and his dress was a Norfolk jacket and knickers in heather mixture.

‘See,’ he said, as he let Darnell in; ‘see the dodge. You don’t turn the handle at all. First of all push hard, and then pull. It’s a trick of my own, and I shall have it patented. You see, it keeps undesirable characters at a distance — such a great thing in the suburbs. I feel I can leave Mrs. Wilson alone now; and, formerly, you have no idea how she used to be pestered.’

‘But how about visitors?’ said Darnell. ‘How do they get in?’

‘Oh, we put them up to it. Besides,’ he said vaguely, ‘there is sure to be somebody looking out. Mrs. Wilson is nearly always at the window. She’s out now; gone to call on some friends. The Bennetts’ At Home day, I think it is. This is the first Saturday, isn’t it? You know J. W. Bennett, don’t you? Ah, he’s in the House; doing very well, I believe. He put me on to a very good thing the other day.’

‘But, I say,’ said Wilson, as they turned and strolled towards the front door, ‘what do you wear those black things for? You look hot. Look at me. Well, I’ve been gardening, you know, but I feel as cool as a cucumber. I dare say you don’t know where to get these things? Very few men do. Where do you suppose I got ’em?’

‘In the West End, I suppose,’ said Darnell, wishing to be polite.

‘Yes, that’s what everybody says. And it is a good cut. Well, I’ll tell you, but you needn’t pass it on to everybody. I got the tip from Jameson — you know him, “Jim–Jams,” in the China trade, 39 Eastbrook — and he said he didn’t want everybody in the City to know about it. But just go to Jennings, in Old Wall, and mention my name, and you’ll be all right. And what d’you think they cost?’

‘I haven’t a notion,’ said Darnell, who had never bought such a suit in his life.

‘Well, have a guess.’

Darnell regarded Wilson gravely.

The jacket hung about his body like a sack, the knickerbockers drooped lamentably over his calves, and in prominent positions the bloom of the heather seemed about to fade and disappear.

‘Three pounds, I suppose, at least,’ he said at length.

‘Well, I asked Dench, in our place, the other day, and he guessed four ten, and his father’s got something to do with a big business in Conduit Street. But I only gave thirty-five and six. To measure? Of course; look at the cut, man.’

Darnell was astonished at so low a price.

‘And, by the way,’ Wilson went on, pointing to his new brown boots, ‘you know where to go for shoe-leather? Oh, I thought everybody was up to that! There’s only one place. “Mr. Bill,” in Gunning Street — nine and six.’

They were walking round and round the garden, and Wilson pointed out the flowers in the beds and borders. There were hardly any blossoms, but everything was neatly arranged.

‘Here are the tuberous-rooted Glasgownias,’ he said, showing a rigid row of stunted plants; ‘those are Squintaceæ; this is a new introduction, Moldavia Semperflorida Andersonii; and this is Prattsia.’

‘When do they come out?’ said Darnell.

‘Most of them in the end of August or beginning of September,’ said Wilson briefly. He was slightly annoyed with himself for having talked so much about his plants, since he saw that Darnell cared nothing for flowers; and, indeed, the visitor could hardly dissemble vague recollections that came to him; thoughts of an old, wild garden, full of odours, beneath grey walls, of the fragrance of the meadowsweet beside the brook.

‘I wanted to consult you about some furniture,’ Darnell said at last. ‘You know we’ve got a spare room, and I’m thinking of putting a few things into it. I haven’t exactly made up my mind, but I thought you might advise me.’

‘Come into my den,’ said Wilson. ‘No; this way, by the back’; and he showed Darnell another ingenious arrangement at the side door whereby a violent high-toned bell was set pealing in the house if one did but touch the latch. Indeed, Wilson handled it so briskly that the bell rang a wild alarm, and the servant, who was trying on her mistress’s things in the bedroom, jumped madly to the window and then danced a hysteric dance. There was plaster found on the drawing-room table on Sunday afternoon, and Wilson wrote a letter to the ‘Fulham Chronicle,’ ascribing the phenomenon ‘to some disturbance of a seismic nature.’

For the moment he knew nothing of the great results of his contrivance, and solemnly led the way towards the back of the house. Here there was a patch of turf, beginning to look a little brown, with a background of shrubs. In the middle of the turf, a boy of nine or ten was standing all alone, with something of an air.

‘The eldest,’ said Wilson. ‘Havelock. Well, Lockie, what are ye doing now? And where are your brother and sister?’

The boy was not at all shy. Indeed, he seemed eager to explain the course of events.

‘I’m playing at being Gawd,’ he said, with an engaging frankness. ‘And I’ve sent Fergus and Janet to the bad place. That’s in the shrubbery. And they’re never to come out any more. And they’re burning for ever and ever.’

‘What d’you think of that?’ said Wilson admiringly. ‘Not bad for a youngster of nine, is it? They think a lot of him at the Sunday-school. But come into my den.’

The den was an apartment projecting from the back of the house. It had been designed as a back kitchen and washhouse, but Wilson had draped the ‘copper’ in art muslin and had boarded over the sink, so that it served as a workman’s bench.

‘Snug, isn’t it?’ he said, as he pushed forward one of the two wicker chairs. ‘I think out things here, you know; it’s quiet. And what about this furnishing? Do you want to do the thing on a grand scale?’

‘Oh, not at all. Quite the reverse. In fact, I don’t know whether the sum at our disposal will be sufficient. You see the spare room is ten feet by twelve, with a western exposure, and I thought if we could manage it, that it would seem more cheerful furnished. Besides, it’s pleasant to be able to ask a visitor; our aunt, Mrs. Nixon, for example. But she is accustomed to have everything very nice.’

‘And how much do you want to spend?’

‘Well, I hardly think we should be justified in going much beyond ten pounds. That isn’t enough, eh?’

Wilson got up and shut the door of the back kitchen impressively.

‘Look here,’ he said, ‘I’m glad you came to me in the first place. Now you’ll just tell me where you thought of going yourself.’

‘Well, I had thought of the Hampstead Road,’ said Darnell in a hesitating manner.

‘I just thought you’d say that. But I’ll ask you, what is the good of going to those expensive shops in the West End? You don’t get a better article for your money. You’re merely paying for fashion.’

‘I’ve seen some nice things in Samuel’s, though. They get a brilliant polish on their goods in those superior shops. We went there when we were married.’

‘Exactly, and paid ten per cent more than you need have paid. It’s throwing money away. And how much did you say you had to spend? Ten pounds. Well, I can tell you where to get a beautiful bedroom suite, in the very highest finish, for six pound ten. What d’you think of that? China included, mind you; and a square of carpet, brilliant colours, will only cost you fifteen and six. Look here, go any Saturday afternoon to Dick’s, in the Seven Sisters Road, mention my name, and ask for Mr. Johnston. The suite’s in ash, “Elizabethan” they call it. Six pound ten, including the china, with one of their “Orient” carpets, nine by nine, for fifteen and six. Dick’s.’

Wilson spoke with some eloquence on the subject of furnishing. He pointed out that the times were changed, and that the old heavy style was quite out of date.

‘You know,’ he said, ‘it isn’t like it was in the old days, when people used to buy things to last hundreds of years. Why, just before the wife and I were married, an uncle of mine died up in the North and left me his furniture. I was thinking of furnishing at the time, and I thought the things might come in handy; but I assure you there wasn’t a single article that I cared to give house-room to. All dingy, old mahogany; big bookcases and bureaus, and claw-legged chairs and tables. As I said to the wife (as she was soon afterwards), “We don’t exactly want to set up a chamber of horrors, do we?” So I sold off the lot for what I could get. I must confess I like a cheerful room.’

Darnell said he had heard that artists liked the old-fashioned furniture.

‘Oh, I dare say. The “unclean cult of the sunflower,” eh? You saw that piece in the “Daily Post”? I hate all that rot myself. It isn’t healthy, you know, and I don’t believe the English people will stand it. But talking of curiosities, I’ve got something here that’s worth a bit of money.’

He dived into some dusty receptacle in a corner of the room, and showed Darnell a small, worm-eaten Bible, wanting the first five chapters of Genesis and the last leaf of the Apocalypse. It bore the date of 1753.

‘It’s my belief that’s worth a lot,’ said Wilson. ‘Look at the worm-holes. And you see it’s “imperfect,” as they call it. You’ve noticed that some of the most valuable books are “imperfect” at the sales?’

The interview came to an end soon after, and Darnell went home to his tea. He thought seriously of taking Wilson’s advice, and after tea he told Mary of his idea and of what Wilson had said about Dick’s.

Mary was a good deal taken by the plan when she had heard all the details. The prices struck her as very moderate. They were sitting one on each side of the grate (which was concealed by a pretty cardboard screen, painted with landscapes), and she rested her cheek on her hand, and her beautiful dark eyes seemed to dream and behold strange visions. In reality she was thinking of Darnell’s plan.

‘It would be very nice in some ways,’ she said at last. ‘But we must talk it over. What I am afraid of is that it will come to much more than ten pounds in the long run. There are so many things to be considered. There’s the bed. It would look shabby if we got a common bed without brass mounts. Then the bedding, the mattress, and blankets, and sheets, and counterpane would all cost something.’

She dreamed again, calculating the cost of all the necessaries, and Darnell stared anxiously; reckoning with her, and wondering what her conclusion would be. For a moment the delicate colouring of her face, the grace of her form, and the brown hair, drooping over her ears and clustering in little curls about her neck, seemed to hint at a language which he had not yet learned; but she spoke again.

‘The bedding would come to a great deal, I am afraid. Even if Dick’s are considerably cheaper than Boon’s or Samuel’s. And, my dear, we must have some ornaments on the mantelpiece. I saw some very nice vases at eleven-three the other day at Wilkin and Dodd’s. We should want six at least, and there ought to be a centre-piece. You see how it mounts up.’

Darnell was silent. He saw that his wife was summing up against his scheme, and though he had set his heart on it, he could not resist her arguments.

‘It would be nearer twelve pounds than ten,’ she said.

‘The floor would have to be stained round the carpet (nine by nine, you said?), and we should want a piece of linoleum to go under the washstand. And the walls would look very bare without any pictures.’

‘I thought about the pictures,’ said Darnell; and he spoke quite eagerly. He felt that here, at least, he was unassailable. ‘You know there’s the “Derby Day” and the “Railway Station,” ready framed, standing in the corner of the box-room already. They’re a bit old-fashioned, perhaps, but that doesn’t matter in a bedroom. And couldn’t we use some photographs? I saw a very neat frame in natural oak in the City, to hold half a dozen, for one and six. We might put in your father, and your brother James, and Aunt Marian, and your grandmother, in her widow’s cap — and any of the others in the album. And then there’s that old family picture in the hair-trunk — that might do over the mantelpiece.’

‘You mean your great-grandfather in the gilt frame? But that’s very old-fashioned, isn’t it? He looks so queer in his wig. I don’t think it would quite go with the room, somehow.’

Darnell thought a moment. The portrait was a ‘kitcat’ of a young gentleman, bravely dressed in the fashion of 1750, and he very faintly remembered some old tales that his father had told him about this ancestor — tales of the woods and fields, of the deep sunken lanes, and the forgotten country in the west.

‘No,’ he said, ‘I suppose it is rather out of date. But I saw some very nice prints in the City, framed and quite cheap.’

‘Yes, but everything counts. Well, we will talk it over, as you say. You know we must be careful.’

The servant came in with the supper, a tin of biscuits, a glass of milk for the mistress, and a modest pint of beer for the master, with a little cheese and butter. Afterwards Edward smoked two pipes of honeydew, and they went quietly to bed; Mary going first, and her husband following a quarter of an hour later, according to the ritual established from the first days of their marriage. Front and back doors were locked, the gas was turned off at the meter, and when Darnell got upstairs he found his wife already in bed, her face turned round on the pillow.

She spoke softly to him as he came into the room.

‘It would be impossible to buy a presentable bed at anything under one pound eleven, and good sheets are dear, anywhere.’

He slipped off his clothes and slid gently into bed, putting out the candle on the table. The blinds were all evenly and duly drawn, but it was a June night, and beyond the walls, beyond that desolate world and wilderness of grey Shepherd’s Bush, a great golden moon had floated up through magic films of cloud, above the hill, and the earth was filled with a wonderful light between red sunset lingering over the mountain and that marvellous glory that shone into the woods from the summit of the hill. Darnell seemed to see some reflection of that wizard brightness in the room; the pale walls and the white bed and his wife’s face lying amidst brown hair upon the pillow were illuminated, and listening he could almost hear the corncrake in the fields, the fern-owl sounding his strange note from the quiet of the rugged place where the bracken grew, and, like the echo of a magic song, the melody of the nightingale that sang all night in the alder by the little brook. There was nothing that he could say, but he slowly stole his arm under his wife’s neck, and played with the ringlets of brown hair. She never moved, she lay there gently breathing, looking up to the blank ceiling of the room with her beautiful eyes, thinking also, no doubt, thoughts that she could not utter, kissing her husband obediently when he asked her to do so, and he stammered and hesitated as he spoke.

They were nearly asleep, indeed Darnell was on the very eve of dreaming, when she said very softly —

‘I am afraid, darling, that we could never afford it.’ And he heard her words through the murmur of the water, dripping from the grey rock, and falling into the clear pool beneath.

 

Sunday morning was always an occasion of idleness. Indeed, they would never have got breakfast if Mrs. Darnell, who had the instincts of the housewife, had not awoke and seen the bright sunshine, and felt that the house was too still. She lay quiet for five minutes, while her husband slept beside her, and listened intently, waiting for the sound of Alice stirring down below. A golden tube of sunlight shone through some opening in the Venetian blinds, and it shone on the brown hair that lay about her head on the pillow, and she looked steadily into the room at the ‘duchesse’ toilet-table, the coloured ware of the washstand, and the two photogravures in oak frames, ‘The Meeting’ and ‘The Parting,’ that hung upon the wall. She was half dreaming as she listened for the servant’s footsteps, and the faint shadow of a shade of a thought came over her, and she imagined dimly, for the quick moment of a dream, another world where rapture was wine, where one wandered in a deep and happy valley, and the moon was always rising red above the trees. She was thinking of Hampstead, which represented to her the vision of the world beyond the walls, and the thought of the heath led her away to Bank Holidays, and then to Alice. There was not a sound in the house; it might have been midnight for the stillness if the drawling cry of the Sunday paper had not suddenly echoed round the corner of Edna Road, and with it came the warning clank and shriek of the milkman with his pails.

Mrs. Darnell sat up, and wide awake, listened more intently. The girl was evidently fast asleep, and must be roused, or all the work of the day would be out of joint, and she remembered how Edward hated any fuss or discussion about household matters, more especially on a Sunday, after his long week’s work in the City. She gave her husband an affectionate glance as he slept on, for she was very fond of him, and so she gently rose from the bed and went in her nightgown to call the maid.

The servant’s room was small and stuffy, the night had been very hot, and Mrs. Darnell paused for a moment at the door, wondering whether the girl on the bed was really the dusty-faced servant who bustled day by day about the house, or even the strangely bedizened creature, dressed in purple, with a shiny face, who would appear on the Sunday afternoon, bringing in an early tea, because it was her ‘evening out.’ Alice’s hair was black and her skin was pale, almost of the olive tinge, and she lay asleep, her head resting on one arm, reminding Mrs. Darnell of a queer print of a ‘Tired Bacchante’ that she had seen long ago in a shop window in Upper Street, Islington. And a cracked bell was ringing; that meant five minutes to eight, and nothing done.

She touched the girl gently on the shoulder, and only smiled when her eyes opened, and waking with a start, she got up in sudden confusion. Mrs. Darnell went back to her room and dressed slowly while her husband still slept, and it was only at the last moment, as she fastened her cherry-coloured bodice, that she roused him, telling him that the bacon would be overdone unless he hurried over his dressing.

Over the breakfast they discussed the question of the spare room all over again. Mrs. Darnell still admitted that the plan of furnishing it attracted her, but she could not see how it could be done for the ten pounds, and as they were prudent people they did not care to encroach on their savings. Edward was highly paid, having (with allowances for extra work in busy weeks) a hundred and forty pounds a year, and Mary had inherited from an old uncle, her godfather, three hundred pounds, which had been judiciously laid out in mortgage at 4–1/2 per cent. Their total income, then, counting in Aunt Marian’s present, was a hundred and fifty-eight pounds a year, and they were clear of debt, since Darnell had bought the furniture for the house out of money which he had saved for five or six years before. In the first few years of his life in the City his income had, of course, been smaller, and at first he had lived very freely, without a thought of laying by. The theatres and music-halls had attracted him, and scarcely a week passed without his going (in the pit) to one or the other; and he had occasionally bought photographs of actresses who pleased him. These he had solemnly burnt when he became engaged to Mary; he remembered the evening well; his heart had been so full of joy and wonder, and the landlady had complained bitterly of the mess in the grate when he came home from the City the next night. Still, the money was lost, as far as he could recollect, ten or twelve shillings; and it annoyed him all the more to reflect that if he had put it by, it would have gone far towards the purchase of an ‘Orient’ carpet in brilliant colours. Then there had been other expenses of his youth: he had purchased threepenny and even fourpenny cigars, the latter rarely, but the former frequently, sometimes singly, and sometimes in bundles of twelve for half-a-crown. Once a meerschaum pipe had haunted him for six weeks; the tobacconist had drawn it out of a drawer with some air of secrecy as he was buying a packet of ‘Lone Star.’ Here was another useless expense, these American-manufactured tobaccos; his ‘Lone Star,’ ‘Long Judge,’ ‘Old Hank,’ ‘Sultry Clime,’ and the rest of them cost from a shilling to one and six the two-ounce packet; whereas now he got excellent loose honeydew for threepence halfpenny an ounce. But the crafty tradesman, who had marked him down as a buyer of expensive fancy goods, nodded with his air of mystery, and, snapping open the case, displayed the meerschaum before the dazzled eyes of Darnell. The bowl was carved in the likeness of a female figure, showing the head and torso, and the mouthpiece was of the very best amber — only twelve and six, the man said, and the amber alone, he declared, was worth more than that. He explained that he felt some delicacy about showing the pipe to any but a regular customer, and was willing to take a little under cost price and ‘cut the loss.’ Darnell resisted for the time, but the pipe troubled him, and at last he bought it. He was pleased to show it to the younger men in the office for a while, but it never smoked very well, and he gave it away just before his marriage, as from the nature of the carving it would have been impossible to use it in his wife’s presence. Once, while he was taking his holidays at Hastings, he had purchased a malacca cane — a useless thing that had cost seven shillings — and he reflected with sorrow on the innumerable evenings on which he had rejected his landlady’s plain fried chop, and had gone out to flaner among the Italian restaurants in Upper Street, Islington (he lodged in Holloway), pampering himself with expensive delicacies: cutlets and green peas, braised beef with tomato sauce, fillet steak and chipped potatoes, ending the banquet very often with a small wedge of Gruyère, which cost twopence. One night, after receiving a rise in his salary, he had actually drunk a quarter-flask of Chianti and had added the enormities of Benedictine, coffee, and cigarettes to an expenditure already disgraceful, and sixpence to the waiter made the bill amount to four shillings instead of the shilling that would have provided him with a wholesome and sufficient repast at home. Oh, there were many other items in this account of extravagance, and Darnell had often regretted his way of life, thinking that if he had been more careful, five or six pounds a year might have been added to their income.

And the question of the spare room brought back these regrets in an exaggerated degree. He persuaded himself that the extra five pounds would have given a sufficient margin for the outlay that he desired to make; though this was, no doubt, a mistake on his part. But he saw quite clearly that, under the present conditions, there must be no levies made on the very small sum of money that they had saved. The rent of the house was thirty-five, and rates and taxes added another ten pounds — nearly a quarter of their income for house-room. Mary kept down the housekeeping bills to the very best of her ability, but meat was always dear, and she suspected the maid of cutting surreptitious slices from the joint and eating them in her bedroom with bread and treacle in the dead of night, for the girl had disordered and eccentric appetites. Mr. Darnell thought no more of restaurants, cheap or dear; he took his lunch with him to the City, and joined his wife in the evening at high tea — chops, a bit of steak, or cold meat from the Sunday’s dinner. Mrs. Darnell ate bread and jam and drank a little milk in the middle of the day; but, with the utmost economy, the effort to live within their means and to save for future contingencies was a very hard one. They had determined to do without change of air for at least three years, as the honeymoon at Walton-on-the-Naze had cost a good deal; and it was on this ground that they had, somewhat illogically, reserved the ten pounds, declaring that as they were not to have any holiday they would spend the money on something useful.

And it was this consideration of utility that was finally fatal to Darnell’s scheme. They had calculated and recalculated the expense of the bed and bedding, the linoleum, and the ornaments, and by a great deal of exertion the total expenditure had been made to assume the shape of ‘something very little over ten pounds,’ when Mary said quite suddenly —

‘But, after all, Edward, we don’t really want to furnish the room at all. I mean it isn’t necessary. And if we did so it might lead to no end of expense. People would hear of it and be sure to fish for invitations. You know we have relatives in the country, and they would be almost certain, the Mallings, at any rate, to give hints.’

Darnell saw the force of the argument and gave way. But he was bitterly disappointed.

‘It would have been very nice, wouldn’t it?’ he said with a sigh.

‘Never mind, dear,’ said Mary, who saw that he was a good deal cast down. ‘We must think of some other plan that will be nice and useful too.’

She often spoke to him in that tone of a kind mother, though she was by three years the younger.

‘And now,’ she said, ‘I must get ready for church. Are you coming?’

Darnell said that he thought not. He usually accompanied his wife to morning service, but that day he felt some bitterness in his heart, and preferred to lounge under the shade of the big mulberry tree that stood in the middle of their patch of garden — relic of the spacious lawns that had once lain smooth and green and sweet, where the dismal streets now swarmed in a hopeless labyrinth.

So Mary went quietly and alone to church. St. Paul’s stood in a neighbouring street, and its Gothic design would have interested a curious inquirer into the history of a strange revival. Obviously, mechanically, there was nothing amiss. The style chosen was ‘geometrical decorated,’ and the tracery of the windows seemed correct. The nave, the aisles, the spacious chancel, were reasonably proportioned; and, to be quite serious, the only feature obviously wrong was the substitution of a low ‘chancel wall’ with iron gates for the rood screen with the loft and rood. But this, it might plausibly be contended, was merely an adaptation of the old idea to modern requirements, and it would have been quite difficult to explain why the whole building, from the mere mortar setting between the stones to the Gothic gas standards, was a mysterious and elaborate blasphemy. The canticles were sung to Joll in B flat, the chants were ‘Anglican,’ and the sermon was the gospel for the day, amplified and rendered into the more modern and graceful English of the preacher. And Mary came away.

After their dinner (an excellent piece of Australian mutton, bought in the ‘World Wide’ Stores, in Hammersmith), they sat for some time in the garden, partly sheltered by the big mulberry tree from the observation of their neighbours. Edward smoked his honeydew, and Mary looked at him with placid affection.

‘You never tell me about the men in your office,’ she said at length. ‘Some of them are nice fellows, aren’t they?’

‘Oh, yes, they’re very decent. I must bring some of them round, one of these days.’

He remembered with a pang that it would be necessary to provide whisky. One couldn’t ask the guest to drink table beer at tenpence the gallon.

‘Who are they, though?’ said Mary. ‘I think they might have given you a wedding present.’

‘Well, I don’t know. We never have gone in for that sort of thing. But they’re very decent chaps. Well, there’s Harvey; “Sauce” they call him behind his back. He’s mad on bicycling. He went in last year for the Two Miles Amateur Record. He’d have made it, too, if he could have got into better training.

‘Then there’s James, a sporting man. You wouldn’t care for him. I always think he smells of the stable.’

‘How horrid!’ said Mrs. Darnell, finding her husband a little frank, lowering her eyes as she spoke.

‘Dickenson might amuse you,’ Darnell went on. ‘He’s always got a joke. A terrible liar, though. When he tells a tale we never know how much to believe. He swore the other day he’d seen one of the governors buying cockles off a barrow near London Bridge, and Jones, who’s just come, believed every word of it.’

Darnell laughed at the humorous recollection of the jest.

‘And that wasn’t a bad yarn about Salter’s wife,’ he went on. ‘Salter is the manager, you know. Dickenson lives close by, in Notting Hill, and he said one morning that he had seen Mrs. Salter, in the Portobello Road, in red stockings, dancing to a piano organ.’

‘He’s a little coarse, isn’t he?’ said Mrs. Darnell. ‘I don’t see much fun in that.’

‘Well, you know, amongst men it’s different. You might like Wallis; he’s a tremendous photographer. He often shows us photos he’s taken of his children — one, a little girl of three, in her bath. I asked him how he thought she’d like it when she was twenty-three.’

Mrs. Darnell looked down and made no answer.

There was silence for some minutes while Darnell smoked his pipe. ‘I say, Mary,’ he said at length, ‘what do you say to our taking a paying guest?’

‘A paying guest! I never thought of it. Where should we put him?’

‘Why, I was thinking of the spare room. The plan would obviate your objection, wouldn’t it? Lots of men in the City take them, and make money of it too. I dare say it would add ten pounds a year to our income. Redgrave, the cashier, finds it worth his while to take a large house on purpose. They have a regular lawn for tennis and a billiard-room.’

Mary considered gravely, always with the dream in her eyes. ‘I don’t think we could manage it, Edward,’ she said; ‘it would be inconvenient in many ways.’ She hesitated for a moment. ‘And I don’t think I should care to have a young man in the house. It is so very small, and our accommodation, as you know, is so limited.’

She blushed slightly, and Edward, a little disappointed as he was, looked at her with a singular longing, as if he were a scholar confronted with a doubtful hieroglyph, either wholly wonderful or altogether commonplace. Next door children were playing in the garden, playing shrilly, laughing, crying, quarrelling, racing to and fro. Suddenly a clear, pleasant voice sounded from an upper window.

‘Enid! Charles! Come up to my room at once!’

There was an instant sudden hush. The children’s voices died away.

‘Mrs. Parker is supposed to keep her children in great order,’ said Mary. ‘Alice was telling me about it the other day. She had been talking to Mrs. Parker’s servant. I listened to her without any remark, as I don’t think it right to encourage servants’ gossip; they always exaggerate everything. And I dare say children often require to be corrected.’

The children were struck silent as if some ghastly terror had seized them.

Darnell fancied that he heard a queer sort of cry from the house, but could not be quite sure. He turned to the other side, where an elderly, ordinary man with a grey moustache was strolling up and down on the further side of his garden. He caught Darnell’s eye, and Mrs. Darnell looking towards him at the same moment, he very politely raised his tweed cap. Darnell was surprised to see his wife blushing fiercely.

‘Sayce and I often go into the City by the same ’bus,’ he said, ‘and as it happens we’ve sat next to each other two or three times lately. I believe he’s a traveller for a leather firm in Bermondsey. He struck me as a pleasant man. Haven’t they got rather a good-looking servant?’

‘Alice has spoken to me about her — and the Sayces,’ said Mrs. Darnell. ‘I understand that they are not very well thought of in the neighbourhood. But I must go in and see whether the tea is ready. Alice will be wanting to go out directly.’

Darnell looked after his wife as she walked quickly away. He only dimly understood, but he could see the charm of her figure, the delight of the brown curls clustering about her neck, and he again felt that sense of the scholar confronted by the hieroglyphic. He could not have expressed his emotion, but he wondered whether he would ever find the key, and something told him that before she could speak to him his own lips must be unclosed. She had gone into the house by the back kitchen door, leaving it open, and he heard her speaking to the girl about the water being ‘really boiling.’ He was amazed, almost indignant with himself; but the sound of the words came to his ears as strange, heart-piercing music, tones from another, wonderful sphere. And yet he was her husband, and they had been married nearly a year; and yet, whenever she spoke, he had to listen to the sense of what she said, constraining himself, lest he should believe she was a magic creature, knowing the secrets of immeasurable delight.

He looked out through the leaves of the mulberry tree. Mr. Sayce had disappeared from his view, but he saw the light-blue fume of the cigar that he was smoking floating slowly across the shadowed air. He was wondering at his wife’s manner when Sayce’s name was mentioned, puzzling his head as to what could be amiss in the household of a most respectable personage, when his wife appeared at the dining-room window and called him in to tea. She smiled as he looked up, and he rose hastily and walked in, wondering whether he were not a little ‘queer,’ so strange were the dim emotions and the dimmer impulses that rose within him.

Alice was all shining purple and strong scent, as she brought in the teapot and the jug of hot water. It seemed that a visit to the kitchen had inspired Mrs. Darnell in her turn with a novel plan for disposing of the famous ten pounds. The range had always been a trouble to her, and when sometimes she went into the kitchen, and found, as she said, the fire ‘roaring halfway up the chimney,’ it was in vain that she reproved the maid on the ground of extravagance and waste of coal. Alice was ready to admit the absurdity of making up such an enormous fire merely to bake (they called it ‘roast’) a bit of beef or mutton, and to boil the potatoes and the cabbage; but she was able to show Mrs. Darnell that the fault lay in the defective contrivance of the range, in an oven which ‘would not get hot.’ Even with a chop or a steak it was almost as bad; the heat seemed to escape up the chimney or into the room, and Mary had spoken several times to her husband on the shocking waste of coal, and the cheapest coal procurable was never less than eighteen shillings the ton. Mr. Darnell had written to the landlord, a builder, who had replied in an illiterate but offensive communication, maintaining the excellence of the stove and charging all the faults to the account of ‘your good lady,’ which really implied that the Darnells kept no servant, and that Mrs. Darnell did everything. The range, then, remained, a standing annoyance and expense. Every morning, Alice said, she had the greatest difficulty in getting the fire to light at all, and once lighted it ‘seemed as if it fled right up the chimney.’ Only a few nights before Mrs. Darnell had spoken seriously to her husband about it; she had got Alice to weigh the coals expended in cooking a cottage pie, the dish of the evening, and deducting what remained in the scuttle after the pie was done, it appeared that the wretched thing had consumed nearly twice the proper quantity of fuel.

‘You remember what I said the other night about the range?’ said Mrs. Darnell, as she poured out the tea and watered the leaves. She thought the introduction a good one, for though her husband was a most amiable man, she guessed that he had been just a little hurt by her decision against his furnishing scheme.

‘The range?’ said Darnell. He paused as he helped himself to the marmalade and considered for a moment. ‘No, I don’t recollect. What night was it?’

‘Tuesday. Don’t you remember? You had “overtime,” and didn’t get home till quite late.’

She paused for a moment, blushing slightly; and then began to recapitulate the misdeeds of the range, and the outrageous outlay of coal in the preparation of the cottage pie.

‘Oh, I recollect now. That was the night I thought I heard the nightingale (people say there are nightingales in Bedford Park), and the sky was such a wonderful deep blue.’

He remembered how he had walked from Uxbridge Road Station, where the green ’bus stopped, and in spite of the fuming kilns under Acton, a delicate odour of the woods and summer fields was mysteriously in the air, and he had fancied that he smelt the red wild roses, drooping from the hedge. As he came to his gate he saw his wife standing in the doorway, with a light in her hand, and he threw his arms violently about her as she welcomed him, and whispered something in her ear, kissing her scented hair. He had felt quite abashed a moment afterwards, and he was afraid that he had frightened her by his nonsense; she seemed trembling and confused. And then she had told him how they had weighed the coal.

‘Yes, I remember now,’ he said. ‘It is a great nuisance, isn’t it? I hate to throw away money like that.’

‘Well, what do you think? Suppose we bought a really good range with aunt’s money? It would save us a lot, and I expect the things would taste much nicer.’

Darnell passed the marmalade, and confessed that the idea was brilliant.

‘It’s much better than mine, Mary,’ he said quite frankly. ‘I am so glad you thought of it. But we must talk it over; it doesn’t do to buy in a hurry. There are so many makes.’

Each had seen ranges which looked miraculous inventions; he in the neighbourhood of the City; she in Oxford Street and Regent Street, on visits to the dentist. They discussed the matter at tea, and afterwards they discussed it walking round and round the garden, in the sweet cool of the evening.

‘They say the “Newcastle” will burn anything, coke even,’ said Mary.

‘But the “Glow” got the gold medal at the Paris Exhibition,’ said Edward.

‘But what about the “Eutopia” Kitchener? Have you seen it at work in Oxford Street?’ said Mary. ‘They say their plan of ventilating the oven is quite unique.’

‘I was in Fleet Street the other day,’ answered Edward, ‘and I was looking at the “Bliss” Patent Stoves. They burn less fuel than any in the market — so the makers declare.’

He put his arm gently round her waist. She did not repel him; she whispered quite softly —

‘I think Mrs. Parker is at her window,’ and he drew his arm back slowly.

‘But we will talk it over,’ he said. ‘There is no hurry. I might call at some of the places near the City, and you might do the same thing in Oxford Street and Regent Street and Piccadilly, and we could compare notes.’

Mary was quite pleased with her husband’s good temper. It was so nice of him not to find fault with her plan; ‘He’s so good to me,’ she thought, and that was what she often said to her brother, who did not care much for Darnell. They sat down on the seat under the mulberry, close together, and she let Darnell take her hand, and as she felt his shy, hesitating fingers touch her in the shadow, she pressed them ever so softly, and as he fondled her hand, his breath was on her neck, and she heard his passionate, hesitating voice whisper, ‘My dear, my dear,’ as his lips touched her cheek. She trembled a little, and waited. Darnell kissed her gently on the cheek and drew away his hand, and when he spoke he was almost breathless.

‘We had better go in now,’ he said. ‘There is a heavy dew, and you might catch cold.’

A warm, scented gale came to them from beyond the walls. He longed to ask her to stay out with him all night beneath the tree, that they might whisper to one another, that the scent of her hair might inebriate him, that he might feel her dress still brushing against his ankles. But he could not find the words, and it was absurd, and she was so gentle that she would do whatever he asked, however foolish it might be, just because he asked her. He was not worthy to kiss her lips; he bent down and kissed her silk bodice, and again he felt that she trembled, and he was ashamed, fearing that he had frightened her.

They went slowly into the house, side by side, and Darnell lit the gas in the drawing-room, where they always sat on Sunday evenings. Mrs. Darnell felt a little tired and lay down on the sofa, and Darnell took the arm-chair opposite. For a while they were silent, and then Darnell said suddenly —

‘What’s wrong with the Sayces? You seemed to think there was something a little strange about them. Their maid looks quite quiet.’

‘Oh, I don’t know that one ought to pay any attention to servants’ gossip. They’re not always very truthful.’

‘It was Alice told you, wasn’t it?’

‘Yes. She was speaking to me the other day, when I was in the kitchen in the afternoon.’

‘But what was it?’

‘Oh, I’d rather not tell you, Edward. It’s not pleasant. I scolded Alice for repeating it to me.’

Darnell got up and took a small, frail chair near the sofa.

‘Tell me,’ he said again, with an odd perversity. He did not really care to hear about the household next door, but he remembered how his wife’s cheeks flushed in the afternoon, and now he was looking at her eyes.

‘Oh, I really couldn’t tell you, dear. I should feel ashamed.’

‘But you’re my wife.’

‘Yes, but it doesn’t make any difference. A woman doesn’t like to talk about such things.’

Darnell bent his head down. His heart was beating; he put his ear to her mouth and said, ‘Whisper.’

Mary drew his head down still lower with her gentle hand, and her cheeks burned as she whispered —

‘Alice says that — upstairs — they have only — one room furnished. The maid told her — herself.’

With an unconscious gesture she pressed his head to her breast, and he in turn was bending her red lips to his own, when a violent jangle clamoured through the silent house. They sat up, and Mrs. Darnell went hurriedly to the door.

‘That’s Alice,’ she said. ‘She is always in in time. It has only just struck ten.’

Darnell shivered with annoyance. His lips, he knew, had almost been opened. Mary’s pretty handkerchief, delicately scented from a little flagon that a school friend had given her, lay on the floor, and he picked it up, and kissed it, and hid it away.

 

The question of the range occupied them all through June and far into July. Mrs. Darnell took every opportunity of going to the West End and investigating the capacity of the latest makes, gravely viewing the new improvements and hearing what the shopmen had to say; while Darnell, as he said, ‘kept his eyes open’ about the City. They accumulated quite a literature of the subject, bringing away illustrated pamphlets, and in the evenings it was an amusement to look at the pictures. They viewed with reverence and interest the drawings of great ranges for hotels and public institutions, mighty contrivances furnished with a series of ovens each for a different use, with wonderful apparatus for grilling, with batteries of accessories which seemed to invest the cook almost with the dignity of a chief engineer. But when, in one of the lists, they encountered the images of little toy ‘cottage’ ranges, for four pounds, and even for three pounds ten, they grew scornful, on the strength of the eight or ten pound article which they meant to purchase — when the merits of the divers patents had been thoroughly thrashed out.

The ‘Raven’ was for a long time Mary’s favourite. It promised the utmost economy with the highest efficiency, and many times they were on the point of giving the order. But the ‘Glow’ seemed equally seductive, and it was only £8. 5s. as compared with £9. 7s. 6d., and though the ‘Raven’ was supplied to the Royal Kitchen, the ‘Glow’ could show more fervent testimonials from continental potentates.

It seemed a debate without end, and it endured day after day till that morning, when Darnell woke from the dream of the ancient wood, of the fountains rising into grey vapour beneath the heat of the sun. As he dressed, an idea struck him, and he brought it as a shock to the hurried breakfast, disturbed by the thought of the City ’bus which passed the corner of the street at 9.15.

‘I’ve got an improvement on your plan, Mary,’ he said, with triumph. ‘Look at that,’ and he flung a little book on the table.

He laughed. ‘It beats your notion all to fits. After all, the great expense is the coal. It’s not the stove — at least that’s not the real mischief. It’s the coal is so dear. And here you are. Look at those oil stoves. They don’t burn any coal, but the cheapest fuel in the world — oil; and for two pounds ten you can get a range that will do everything you want.’

‘Give me the book,’ said Mary, ‘and we will talk it over in the evening, when you come home. Must you be going?’

Darnell cast an anxious glance at the clock.

‘Good-bye,’ and they kissed each other seriously and dutifully, and Mary’s eyes made Darnell think of those lonely water-pools, hidden in the shadow of the ancient woods.

So, day after day, he lived in the grey phantasmal world, akin to death, that has, somehow, with most of us, made good its claim to be called life. To Darnell the true life would have seemed madness, and when, now and again, the shadows and vague images reflected from its splendour fell across his path, he was afraid, and took refuge in what he would have called the sane ‘reality’ of common and usual incidents and interests. His absurdity was, perhaps, the more evident, inasmuch as ‘reality’ for him was a matter of kitchen ranges, of saving a few shillings; but in truth the folly would have been greater if it had been concerned with racing stables, steam yachts, and the spending of many thousand pounds.

But so went forth Darnell, day by day, strangely mistaking death for life, madness for sanity, and purposeless and wandering phantoms for true beings. He was sincerely of opinion that he was a City clerk, living in Shepherd’s Bush — having forgotten the mysteries and the far-shining glories of the kingdom which was his by legitimate inheritance.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/m/machen/arthur/fragment-of-life/chapter1.html

Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:39