Tales of Mean Streets, by Arthur Morrison

That Brute Simmons

Simmons’s infamous behavior toward his wife is still matter for profound wonderment among the neighbors. The other women had all along regarded him as a model husband, and certainly Mrs. Simmons was a most conscientious wife. She toiled and slaved for that man, as any woman in the whole street would have maintained, far more than any husband had a right to expect. And now this was what she got for it. Perhaps he had suddenly gone mad.

Before she married Simmons, Mrs. Simmons had been the widowed Mrs. Ford. Ford had got a berth as donkeyman on a tramp steamer, and that steamer had gone down with all hands off the cape — a judgment, the widow woman feared, for long years of contumacy which had culminated in the wickedness of taking to the sea, and taking to it as a donkeyman, an immeasurable fall for a capable engine-fitter. Twelve years as Mrs. Ford had left her still childless, and childless she remained as Mrs. Simmons.

As for Simmons, he, it was held, was fortunate in that capable wife. He was a moderately good carpenter and joiner, but no man of the world, and he wanted to be one. Nobody could tell what might not have happened to Tommy Simmons if there had been no Mrs. Simmons to take care of him. He was a meek and quiet man, with a boyish face and sparse, limp whiskers. He had no vices (even his pipe departed him after his marriage), and Mrs. Simmons had ingrafted on him divers exotic virtues. He went solemnly to chapel every Sunday, under a tall hat, and put a penny — one returned to him for the purpose out of his week’s wages — in the plate. Then, Mrs. Simmons overseeing, he took off his best clothes and brushed them with solicitude and pains. On Saturday afternoons he cleaned the knives, the forks, the boots, the kettles and the windows, patiently and conscientiously. On Tuesday evenings he took the clothes to the mangling. And on Saturday nights he attended Mrs. Simmons in her marketing, to carry the parcels.

Mrs. Simmons’s own virtues were native and numerous. She was a wonderful manager. Every penny of Tommy’s thirty-six or thirty-eight shillings a week was bestowed to the greatest advantage, and Tommy never ventured to guess how much of it she saved. Her cleanliness in housewifery was distracting to behold. She met Simmons at the front door whenever he came home, and then and there he changed his boots for slippers, balancing himself painfully on alternate feet on the cold flags. This was because she scrubbed the passage and doorstep turn about with the wife of the down-stairs family, and because the stair-carpet was her own. She vigilantly supervised her husband all through the process of “cleaning himself” after work, so as to come between her walls and the possibility of random splashes; and if, in spite of her diligence, a spot remained to tell the tale, she was at pains to impress the fact on Simmons’s memory, and to set forth at length all the circumstances of his ungrateful selfishness. In the beginning she had always escorted him to the ready-made clothes shop, and had selected and paid for his clothes — for the reason that man are such perfect fools, and shopkeepers do as they like with them. But she presently improved on that. She found a man selling cheap remnants at a street corner, and straightway she conceived the idea of making Simmons’s clothes herself. Decision was one of her virtues, and a suit of uproarious check tweeds was begun that afternoon from the pattern furnished by an old one. More: it was finished by Sunday, when Simmons, overcome by astonishment at the feat, was indued in it, and pushed off to chapel ere he could recover his senses. The things were not altogether comfortable, he found; the trousers clung tight against his shins, but hung loose behind his heels; and when he sat, it was on a wilderness of hard folds and seams. Also his waistcoat collar tickled his nape, but his coat collar went straining across from shoulder to shoulder, while the main garment bagged generously below his waist. Use made a habit of his discomfort, but it never reconciled him to the chaff of his shopmates; for as Mr. Simmons elaborated successive suits, each one modeled on the last, the primal accidents of her design developed into principles, and grew even bolder and more hideously pronounced. It was vain for Simmons to hint — as hint he did — that he shouldn’t like her to overwork herself, tailoring being bad for the eyes, and there was a new tailor’s in the Mile End Road, very cheap, where . . . “Ho yus,” she retorted, “you’re very consid’rit I dessay sittin’ there actin’ a livin’ lie before your own wife Thomas Simmons as though I couldn’t see through you like a book a lot you care about overworkin’ me as long as your turn’s served throwin’ away money like dirt in the street on a lot o’ swindling’ tailors an’ me workin’ an’ slavin’ ’ere to save a ‘apenny an’ this is my return for it any one ‘ud think you could pick up money in the ‘orseroad an’ I b’lieve I’d be thought better of if I laid in bed all day like some would that I do.” So that Thomas Simmons avoided the subject, nor even murmured when she resolved to cut his hair.

So his placid fortune endured for years. Then there came a golden summer evening when Mrs. Simmons betook herself with a basket to do some small shopping, and Simmons was left at home. He washed and put away the tea-things, and then he fell to meditating on a new pair of trousers, finished that day and hanging behind the parlor door. There they hung, in all their decent innocence of shape in the seat, and they were shorter of leg, longer of waist, and wilder of pattern than he had ever worn before. And as he looked on them the small devil of original sin awoke and clamored in his breast. He was ashamed of it, of course, for well he knew the gratitude he owed his wife for those same trousers, among other blessings. Still, there the small devil was, and the small devil was fertile in base suggestions, and could not be kept from hinting at the new crop of workshop gibes that would spring at Tommy’s first public appearance in such things.

“Pitch ’em in the dust-bin!” said the small devil, at last; “it’s all they’re fit for.”

Simmons turned away in sheer horror of his wicked self, and for a moment thought of washing the tea-things over again by way of discipline. Then he made for the back room, but saw from the landing that the front door was standing open, probably by the fault of the child down-stairs. Now, a front door standing open was a thing that Mrs. Simmons would not abide; it looked low. So Simmons went down, that she might not be wroth with him for the thing when she came back; and, as he shut the door, he looked forth into the street.

A man was loitering on the pavement, and prying curiously about the door. His face was tanned, his hands were deep in the pockets of his unbraced blue trousers, and well back on his head he wore the high-crowned peaked cap topped with a knob of wool, which is affected by Jack ashore about the docks. He lurched a step nearer to the door, and: “Mrs. Ford ain’t in, is she?” he said.

Simmons stared at him for a matter of five seconds, and then said: “Eh?”

“Mrs. Ford as was, then — Simmons now, ain’t it?”

He said this with a furtive leer that Simmons neither liked nor understood.

“No,” said Simmons, “she ain’t in now.”

“You ain’t her ‘usband, are ye?”

“Yus.”

The man took his pipe from his mouth, and grinned silently and long. “Blimy,” he said, at length, “you look the sort o’ bloke she’d like.” And with that he grinned again. Then, seeing that Simmons made ready to shut the door, he put a foot on the sill and a hand against the panel. “Don’t be in a ‘urry, matey,” he said; “I come ’ere t’ave a little talk with you, man to man, d’ye see?” And he frowned fiercely.

Tommy Simmons felt uncomfortable, but the door would not shut, so he parleyed. “Wotjer want?” he asked. “I dunno you.”

“Then if you’ll excuse the liberty, I’ll interdooce meself, in a manner of speaking.” He touched his cap with a bob of mock humility. “I’m Bob Ford,” he said, “come back out o’ kingdom-come, so to say. Me as went down with the ‘Mooltan’— safe dead five years gone. I come to see my wife.”

During this speech Thomas Simmons’s jaw was dropping lower and lower. At the end of it he poked his fingers up through his hair, looked down at the mat, then up at the fanlight, then out into the street, then hard at his visitor. But he found nothing to say.

“Come to see my wife,” the man repeated. “So now we can talk it over — as man to man.”

Simmons slowly shut his mouth, and led the way upstairs mechanically, his fingers still in his hair. A sense of the state of affairs sunk gradually into his brain, and the small devil woke again. Suppose this man was Ford? Suppose he did claim his wife? Would it be a knock-down blow? Would it hit him out? — or not? He thought of the trousers, the tea-things, the mangling, the knives, the kettles and the window; and he thought of them in the way of a backslider.

On the landing Ford clutched at his arm, and asked, in a hoarse whisper: “‘Ow long ‘fore she’s back?”

“‘Bout a hour, I expect,” Simmons replied, having first of all repeated the question in his own mind. And then he opened the parlor door.

“Ah,” said Ford, looking about him, “you’ve bin pretty comf’table. Them chairs an’ things”— jerking his pipe toward them —“was hers — mine, that is to say, speaking straight, and man to man.” He sat down, puffing meditatively at his pipe, and presently: “Well,” he continued, “’ere I am agin, ol’ Bob Ford dead an’ done for — gawn down in the ‘Mooltan.’ On’y I ain’t done for, see?”— and he pointed the stem of his pipe at Simmons’s waistcoat —“I ain’t done for, ‘cause why? Cons’kence o’ bein’ picked up by a ol’ German sailin’-‘utch an’ took to ‘Frisco ‘fore the mast. I’ve ‘ad a few years o’ knockin’ about since then, an’ now”— looking hard at Simmons —“I’ve come back to see my wife.”

“She — she don’t like smoke in ’ere,” said Simmons, as it were, at random.

“No, I bet she don’t,” Ford answered, taking his pipe from his mouth, and holding it low in his hand. “I know ‘Anner. ‘Ow d’you find ‘er? Do she make ye clean the winders?”

“Well,” Simmons admitted, uneasily, I— I do ‘elp ‘er sometimes, o’ course.”

“Ah! An’ the knives too, I bet, an’ the bloomin’ kittles. I know. Wy”— he rose and bent to look behind Simmons’s head —“s’elp me, I b’lieve she cuts yer ‘air! Well, I’m damned! Jes’ wot she would do, too.”

He inspected the blushing Simmons from divers points of vantage. Then he lifted a leg of the trousers hanging behind the door. “I’d bet a trifle,” he said, “she made these ’ere trucks. Nobody else ‘ud do ’em like that. Damme — they’re wuss’n wot you’re got on.”

The small devil began to have the argument all its own way. If this man took his wife back, perhaps he’d have to wear those trousers.

“Ah!” Ford pursued, “she ain’t got no milder. An’ my davy, wot a jore!”

Simmons began to feel that this was no longer his business. Plainly, ‘Anner was this other man’s wife, and he was bound in honor to acknowledge the fact. The small devil put it to him as a matter of duty.

“Well,” said Ford, suddenly, “time’s short, an’ this ain’t business. I won’t be ‘ard on you, matey. I ought prop’ly to stand on my rights, but seein’ as you’re a well-meanin’ young man, so to speak, an’ all settled an’ a-livin ’ere quiet an’ matrimonual, I’ll”— this with a burst of generosity —“damme, yus, I’ll compound the felony, an’ take me ‘ook. Come, I’ll name a figure, as man to man, fust an’ last, no less an’ no more. Five pound does it.”

Simmons hadn’t five pounds — he hadn’t even five pence — and he said so. “An’ I wouldn’t think for to come between a man an’ ‘is wife,” he added, “not on no account. It may be rough on me, but it’s a dooty. I’ll ‘ook it.”

“No,” said Ford, hastily, clutching Simmons by the arm, “don’t do that. I’ll make it a bit cheaper. Say three quid — come, that’s reasonable, ain’t it? Three quid ain’t much compensation for me goin’ away forever — where the stormy winds do blow, so to say — an’ never as much as seein’ me own wife agin for better nor wuss. Between man an’ man now — three quid; an’ I’ll shunt. That’s fair, ain’t it?”

“Of course it’s fair,” Simmons replied, effusively. “It’s more’n fair; it’s noble — downright noble, I call it. But I ain’t goin’ to take a mean advantage o’ your good-‘artedness, Mr. Ford. She’s your wife, an’ I oughtn’t to ‘a’ come between you. I apologize. You stop an’ ‘ave yer proper rights. It’s me as ought to shunt, an’ I will.” And he made a step toward the door.

“‘Old on,” quoth Ford, and got between Simmons and the door; “don’t do things rash. Look wot a loss it’ll be to you with no ‘ome to go to, an’ nobody to look after ye, an’ all that. It’ll be dreadful. Say a couple — there, we won’t quarrel, jest a single quid, between man an’ man, an’ I’ll stand a pot o’ the money.

“You can easy raise a quid — the clock ‘ud pretty nigh do it. A quid does it; an’ I’ll —”

There was a loud double-knock at the front door. In the East End a double-knock is always for the upstairs lodgers.

“Oo’s that?” asked Bob Ford, apprehensively.

“I’ll see,” said Thomas Simmons in reply, and he made a rush for the staircase.

Bob Ford heard him open the front door. Then he went to the window, and just below him, he saw the crown of a bonnet. It vanished, and borne to him from within the door there fell upon his ear the sound of a well-remembered female voice.

“Where ye goin’ now with no ‘at?” asked the voice, sharply.

“Awright, ‘Anner — there’s — there’s somebody upstairs to see you,” Simmons answered. And, as Bob Ford could see, a man went scuttling down the street in the gathering dusk. And behold, it was Thomas Simmons.

Ford reached the landing in three strides. His wife was still at the front door, staring after Simmons. He flung into the back room, threw open the window, dropped from the wash-house roof into the back-yard, scrambled desperately over the fence, and disappeared into the gloom. He was seen by no living soul. And that is why Simmons’s base desertion — under his wife’s very eyes, too — is still an astonishment to the neighbors.

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Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 17:11