You can't be too careful, by H. G. Wells

Chapter 12

Mr Pip Chaser

IN spite of this mental turmoil Edward Albert slept profoundly that night, and the next morning he woke still extremely perplexed but refreshed and feeling much more able to cope with this difficult world. As he had nothing better to do he went for a walk in Regent’s Park and sat down almost on the very seat on which he had discussed his future with Evangeline eight or nine days before. And regardless of the tragedy of the previous day he found himself regretting her acutely.

For nearly two weeks she had subjected him to a regime of unprecedented mental massage, she had anointed him with flattery and endearment, and abruptly he was exposed to this cold and disillusioning world again. And the affair of yesterday was taking on a new appearance. Whatever happened he’d had it and done it. He was a, man. He no longer peeped and peered at the girls and women going by. Their last secret was his. He looked at them appraisingly. But none of them, he realised, was quite like Evangeline. And the very violence aid extravagance of his reaction against her made him feel he had by no means finished with her.

What was to be done about it? Walk about a bit. Have a look at the shops down Regent Street. Get a snack somewhere. Wait for something to happen.

In the afternoon he had an unanticipated visitor.

He answered the door expecting only some tradesman’s call, and discovered a short but upstanding young man in a jauntily cocked bowler hat, an extremely neat black jacket, cheerful herring-bone trousers, and a bright bow tie that harmonised beautifully with a blue shirt and collar and matched exactly with the corner of a handkerchief that projected from the breast-pocket. The face was also up-’ standing, so to speak, clean-shaven, with alert brown eyes, a pug nose and a large oblique mouth ready to smile. A pink carnation in his button hole enhanced his cheerfulness. By Edward Albert’s standards this was an excessively well — dressed person. He opened the door wider.

The visitor neighed. He produced a loud clear lingering key. Then he spoke. “Mr Tewler?” he said.

“You want to see me?” said Edward Albert.

“Guessed it in one,” said the visitor. “May I come in?”

Edward Albert stood aside to admit him.

“I didn’t catch your name,” he said. “If it’s business —”

He remembered some recent instructions of Evangeline.

“If you ‘appen to have a card. . . . ”

“And why not a card?” said the visitor, “Why not? I think, why — yes” He produced a neat black leather pocket — book adorned with a silver monogram, and extracted a card.

“Don’t be alarmed,” he said.

Within a deep black edge it announced its purport:

To introduce Mr Philip Chaser representing Pontifex, Urn and Burke. Funerary Undertakers.

The visitor watched his host’s face for a moment and then gave way to a brief cackle of laughter. “Not on business this time, Edward Albert, not on business. Purely social. It’s the only card I have on me. You see I’m Pip Chaser at your service. Pip, Pip Chaser. I’m, hey, Evangeline’s first cousin by marriage and my wife is her bosom friend. Old schoolfellows. You may have heard her speak of Millie — her dear Millie. Always dear. And her godfather, my revered parent. Nice chap he is — provided you don’t call him Old Gooseberry. We marry from his place. Wedding breakfast and all that. I have to be Best Man. See? Came about the arrangements.”

He removed his hat and revealed an upstanding tussock of hair. He seemed to find some difficulty about placing his hat. He held it in his hand until a suitable place could be found. “You ought to have a hatstand, Edward Albert,” he said. “Hats and umbrellas. There.” He pointed his hat to indicate the exact place. “You must get one and put it there. And now for a talk. Nice little place this looks. Well lit.”

Edward Albert opened the door to the drawing-room.

“Would you like me to make you some tea?” he asked.

“I can.”

“Whisky is, hey, better,” said Mr Chaser.

“I don’t ‘appen to have any whisky.”

“Oh, but you must get a bottle of whisky in the pantry and all that. And cocktail stuff, gin, vermouth, lime juice, the, hey, requisites. What is home without a shaker? Don’t worry about tea. We’ll settle our business and go out for what is called, I believe, a quick one. I should have rung you up this morning, but you’ve got no telephone yet. You must get a telephone. And take my advice, don’t put it out there in the hall for everyone to hear. In a corner near your desk. Bed-room extension perhaps. We’ll fix places for that later. I— hey. I couldn’t come this morning because I had two Blessed Ones to plant out at Woking. I had to get out of my — hey — sables.”

He placed his hat with care and precision exactly in the middle of the table and seated himself gracefully with an arm over the back of his chair. Edward Albert found him admirable. He tried to imitate his ease and left him to open the conversation.

Mr Chaser reflected. Instead of coming to business, he embarked upon a monologue.

“This undertaking business of mine, Edward Albert, is — hey — it isn’t all gloom. Don’t think it. It’s — hey — amusing. Something tonic in putting ’em under and going off yourself. Lot of nonsense talked about grief and lost dear ones and all that. If there hasn’t been a quarrel of some sort, about the will or something, they’re, they’re — hey — just pulling long faces. Pulling ’em, Sir. Because they wouldn’t be there if they weren’t pulled. They’re — hey — survivors again; they’ve got the better of another Departed. I want to go round and slap them on the back and tell ’em to — hey — laugh it off. Sometimes they do. I’ve seen a whole funeral in a fit of giggles. Little dog or something. Our business, of course, is to put a grave face on it; that’s what we’re paid for, so to speak. Put a grave face on it. See?”

“Grave face on it,” said Edward Albert. “Good. Yes, that’s good.”

Mr Pip meditated, neighed at unusual length and went off at a tangent.

“In America, you know, they call undertakers Morticians. Over there they mess about with the body in a way the Christian West Enders we cater for wouldn’t stand for a moment. Not for a moment. They make it up and dress it up and have a sort of lying-instate, when friends call and leave cards. Not our line. It’s done here in London by foreigners of sorts, but not by us. No.”

He paused as though his monologue was running out. He smiled at Edward Albert most engagingly. He admitted he didn’t know why he was talking of funerals. He could tell Edward Albert stories by the hour, but what they had to talk about was something more serious. If ever he wrote a book, he said, and he’d often thought of writing a book, he’d do one called The Hearse with the Silver Lining. Only it might interfere with business. . . .

“It might do that,” said Edward Albert judicially.

“Well, we’ve business on hand and we have to come to it.”

What was he going to say now? “Yeers,” said Edward Albert guardedly, and sat up.

“A wedding, a wedding — key — is something really serious. Serious. It just starts a lot of things and a funeral ends everything. It goes on. And on — key. Now my cousin by marriage, Evangeline, says you’re a fatherless orphan, so to speak. You haven’t been anywhere and done anything yet. World is all before you. All sorts of matters, great and small, you’ve got to be put wise about. That’s where this Best Man comes in. I don’t mind telling you that, for many reasons, you’re lucky to have me as your Best Man. I— hey — happen to be one of the best Best Men in London. Expert at it. I’ve — hey — guided scores — well, six or seven — to their doom. Anything you want to know, anything you have to do.”

Still he seemed to be postponing something. He stood up, stuck his hands in his trouser pockets and walked about the room with one eye on Edward Albert.

“Nice little place you have here. Quite a nice little place. Broken a chair already! Hire purchase stuff. By the time you’ve bought it you’ll have replaced most of it. And you’ve got that old picture; Enfin seul. Leighton, isn’t it?”

“About this wedding of ours,” began Edward Albert. Young Chaser came round on his heel and stood attentive

“What about it?”

“Fact is, Mr Philip —”

“Pip to you my boy — Pip, Pip.”

“But about all this. Fact is — I ought to tell you — we’ve had a bit of a misunderstanding.”

“My wife did say something of the sort while I was shedding my sad rags and putting on these — hey — innocently glad ones. Some storm in a tea-cup. Don’t think about it. Don’t — hey — think about it. These little disturbances will occur. Before a wedding there’s more often trouble than not. Much more often than not. The engagement has been postponed. You see it in The Times. That’s where the undertaker scores. No going back in his business. Death certificate all in order before we think of touching you.”

“What did Mrs Chaser say?”

“Nothing much. Some little rumpus. You’ve offended Evangeline in some way.”

“We sort of.” [Difficult to convey.] “Just kind of didn’t hit things off.”

Pip looked at his protégé and perceived he was blushing deeply. He looked younger and sillier than ever.

“I wasn’t born yesterday, my boy,” said Pip Chaser.

“Say no more about it. Think no more about it. The crisis of yesterday is the joke of tomorrow. You’d be only too glad to see her coming in now? Admit it. You’ve got to let the woman have her own way about — hey — certain matters, particularly at first. Agree to that and back she’ll come. Right away. Agree, eh? Nothing more to be said. Right!”

He reported the state of affairs to his wife. “I thought it was that,” he said, when she had supplied details. “I don’t remember you and I had any particular trouble. . . . ”

“Ton were born knowing,” said Millie Chaser. “And you’ve never left off clucking since. I’ll tell her. She’s upstairs now. . . . ”

“He wants you to come back,” said Millie

Evangeline had been reading The Princess Priscilla’s Fortnight. She put it on one side with an affectation of regret. . . .

“Does he say he’s sorry? He’s got to say he’s sorry.”

“He does.”

“Let’s be clear about things. That boy’s a positive danger. I’m half way to hating him and if he isn’t careful about it, I shall. I’m going to have a separate room. I’m going to — I’m going to have a voice in disposing of myself. Always. After what’s happened I simply murst, Millie.”

“Pip says he knows he’s been an idiot and he’s absolutely sheepish.”

“Sheepish? H’m. What sort of sheep? He’s got to be a lamb if we’re to get on together.”

“Then you’ll go back and have a talk to him?”

Edward Albert was out when she returned. He had gone out to order some whisky and siphons. The incapable little lady let her in without comment. So that he found her in possession when he returned.

He had told himself that when he got her back to their home he would do thus and thus with her, but when he found himself face to face with her, suddenly all that masterful knocking about he had contemplated became improbable.

“Well?” she said.

He felt danger in her eye.

He made a step towards her. “I’m glad you’re back,” he said. “I been wanting you back.”

“Stop,” she said. “Stop a minute, Teddy. Keep off. Listen. Keep your hands off me. If you think I’m going to let a clumsy kid like you manhandle me again!”

Something flashed on the table.

“What’s that?”

“That, my dear, is the bread knife. If you start a scuffle, anything may happen. And who will know which of us began it? See? I mean it, Teddy.”

She read fear in his expressive face and knew that for the moment at least she had won the upper hand. A fair residuum of affectionate proprietorship mingled with her contempt for him. And in her awakened body now there was desire.

“Listen,” she said. “I murst remind you that you arc a youngster, fix years younger than me. It’s painful but I murst. You don’t know things, you don’t understand things. That’s not your fault and it isn’t mine. It happens to be so. In ten years. time it won’t matter about your being younger, but it does now. You’ll be the master then right enough. No doubt. See? But you do as I say now and it will be the better for both of us.”

“What’s all this ‘doing as you say’ mean?”

“Behaving like a lover and not like a beastly uncontrollable little animal. That’s what I mean.”

“But how?”

“You don’t know and you murst trust me to show you.”

“I s’pose I got to do what you say. But what do you want me to do?”

“Be the modest lover you were at the beginning.”

“Am I to live on my bended knees?”

“You do as I say and you can come to bed with me now.”

“Eh?”

“I mean it.” And suddenly this astonishing creature came round the table to him, put her arm about him, drew him to her, and kissed him. He responded automatically. She drew him towards her room. . . .

“We don’t know yet if the worst has happened, so you murst take care, Teddy. . . . ”

He was still marvelling wordlessly at the ways of women when she left the house.

“Changeable,” he reflected. “Don’t know her own mind ten minutes together. All love and kisses, cut and come again, and then — pushed away — you’d ‘ardly think we’d ever made love.”

She said very little about the wedding day for another week or so, and then she informed him abruptly that the sooner they married the better.

“What’s the sudden hurry?” asked Edward Albert.

“Fate accompli. I know now we’ve got to many and that’s all about it.”

“That means a kid,” said Edward Albert, who had been thinking things over for some days. And the more he had thought them over the less he had liked them.

“That means a kid,” he repeated.

“It means, as you say, a kid.”

“And you — all spoilt. Nurses and sickness. All the ’ouse upset and then the kid — nya, nya, nya.”

“And what else did you expect?”

“I ‘oped we’d be able to go on going on as we ‘ave been going on. For a bit anyhow.”

“I’ve felt you ‘oped — hoped that. Well, we can’t.”

She watched his crestfallen face. “Just for one careless moment, Teddy. What a lesson for you! You can’t be too careful.”

But Edward Albert wasn’t going to admit responsibility.

“I been W,” he said. “If ever a man was W, I been W. From the moment I got that blarsted money. I wish I’d never set eyes on it. Or you.”

She shrugged her shoulders and said nothing. What was there for her to say?

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/wells/hg/you-cant-be-too-careful/book3.12.html

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30