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

Chapter 16

Rifted Lute

BUT it has to be admitted that neither she nor Teddy made whatever best of it was possible. Deep in his mind was an uncontrollable resentment against her; deep in hers, something bitterer, an uncontrollable resentment against herself. Her path in life was paved with good resolutions.

They cohabited, as the refined put it. It was like their meals together, a primary function ill done. There were phases of reconciliation; there were even days of companionship. They went to a few cinemas and music halls. They Attempted friendly jokes, but his sense of humour irritated her. There would be reasonless quarrels arising out of nothing at all, and she made them more often than he did. They had few visitors. Pip came in once or twice and Millie Chaser was a steadfast friend. One or two old school-fellows came to tea by invitation. In London there is no calling. Only the clergy call if you appear at church with some regularity or communicate. Evangeline was house-proud and proud to be among her own furniture. She would have liked more people. She had Mrs Doober and Gawpy to tea two or three times, and Mr Chaser brought round a stuffed owl he had bought in a moment of abstraction in a Strand auction room and decided was the very thing for the hall. Evangeline’s place of business sent them a wedding present of an ormolu clock. But none of her former colleagues ever appeared. There was some barrier there.

The weeks lengthened into months. Evangeline took to dressing-gowns and tea-gowns, kept indoors by day and went for walks round the squares after dark. They got to an agreement that the child should be born in a nursing home. Edward Albert was torn between the cost of the nursing home and a vision of innumerable polluted napkins hung out to dry conjured up by Evangeline and Millie. Towards, the end Evangeline became more erratic and fanciful and difficult to please. There was a streak of anger in her desire. And then a day came when she said, “No more of this,” and kept her word. She locked her door upon him. “It’s her condition,” he said. “Be all right when the kid’s born.”

But some flash of prophetic intuition whispered the incredible suggestion that that door was locked on him for good and all.

Long before that climax he was detesting his sexual servitude almost as much as he had detested the mitigated reliefs of his premarital days. He would have given money, real money, to have been able to refuse her capricious summons, her formalised lapse into amorousness, but he never could. But if for example he could say: “Thanks, but I don’t seem to fancy it. You see — I got something a bit better.”

That would be a slap in the face for her, anyhow. He indulged in reveries of unfaithfulness. Pick up a girl somewhere. Pick up a nice girl and lead a double life! He’d got all the time he needed to do that sort of thing now. You had to be careful, though. You had to look out for the gold-diggers. In reveries he could be unfaithful on a magnificent scale, but when it came to practical realisation, he found a thorny zareba between himself and external womankind. He was still haunted by the hygienic nightmares of Dr Scaber, and also you couldn’t make much of a score against Evangeline out of an affair with a street-walker. He would wander about for hours, with a vague dream of accosting some frail but credulous beauty. He would follow women about the streets, and sometimes they were evidently aware of it and amused. They would glance at him just sufficiently to keep him in tow. Several times he carried adventure to the point of standing beside one of them about one o’clock and saying, “How about a spot of lunch, eh?” Twice the invitation was” accepted, but in each case the lady had an urgent engagement in the afternoon, which in its way was as much a relief as a disappointment, for he didn’t know in the least where to take her Tor her seduction. A barmaid who would smile at him drew him like a magnet. Every barmaid has a clientele of smile-purchasers and undertone gossips, whether she wants it or not. For the name of the vague, sexually maundering Tewler is Legion.

There was a coming and going of servants in the little home. At Doober’s Edward Albert had regarded the incessantly changing slaveys with a profound terror mixed with an increasing desire. He had been wont to dream of his first glimpse of that sort of indecorum. Now, as master of the house, he could not fail to regard the various efforts of Evangeline to secure a satisfactory domestic as putting accessible females within reach of him. He had his eye on them and they felt his eye on them.

Evangeline went to a Servants’ Registry for her servants, and Servants. Registries do not make their money by bringing together domestic treasures and irreproachable employers.

One transaction of that sort and their fees are paid and there’s nothing doing any more with either client. On the other hand, an unsatisfactory servant or a tiresome mistress is back in the office in a month or so, and the turnover is resumed. Evangeline’s Registry had a small regiment of plausible but ultimately unsatisfying domestics and a number of amiable, prosperous-looking but temperamental mistresses, upon its books, and it couldn’t have carried on without them. Trouble arose because two girls objected rather markedly to having “that Mr Tewler” hanging about the house all day,

“You didn’t know what he might be up to. He’d follow you into a bedroom or anything.” Others didn’t like being single-handed with a mistress who never came into the kitchen for a friendly word, one objected to Mrs Tewler wanting chocolate or cocoa in bed, and so forth. And one woman refused to wear a cap and apron, and one had a sniff that Evangeline simply could not stand. This state of domestic instability seemed likely to become chronic until a friend of Millie Chaser’s produced the one possible person in a certain Mrs Butter.

There were explanations to be made about this Mrs Butter. She wasn’t to be called by her Christian name; she was to be Mrs Butter, and her title was to be housekeeper-general. These points conceded she was all complaisance.

“You see,” said Millie Chaser, “she just wants to be alone. She’s had a tragic time. She wants work, she says, to occupy her mind, and she does not want to have to talk to people. She has to make a living. She was an orphan or something and lived with an aunt who wanted her out of the way because she had daughters of her own. So when a fellow turned up and wanted to many her, she married him, and he turned out the most frightful blackguard. Frightful, my dear, Took her bit of property, every penny, drank, beat her. Actually beat her. Kicked her and beat her when she was going to have a child. She was taken to hospital. The poor little baby died in a month, he had injured it in some way, and she went out of her mind about it and tried to kill herself. When she began to recover, she found this husband of hers was in jail. He wasn’t her husband; he was a bigamist. He’d just married her to get hold of her poor little bit of money. But that disposed of him. She’s a sort of stunned woman. Very nice, very gentle.”

“And what’s her real name?”

“Still Butter. That was her maiden name and that’s why she’s Mrs and not Miss.”

Mrs Butter appeared in due course. She was young, younger than Evangeline, very plainly dressed in brown, pale, brown-haired, broad-faced and quietly good-looking, She surveyed the house and discussed her duties with her mistress.

Evangeline had been warned not to be too searching in her questions and so she talked about herself. “You see — there’s a baby coming.”

Mrs Butter winced but remained calm. “When?” she asked. Evangeline estimated.

“It will be well for you to have a married woman about,”

“It’s what I’ve wanted. It’s what I want dreadfully. How good of you, Mrs Butter, to see that. Just now I’m splendid, but sometimes — oh, I’m afraid.”

“Why we go through with it. . . . ” said Mrs Butter, and left her sentence incomplete.

“That’s what I ask myself.”

“If there was any pleasure to be found in it,” said Mrs Butter. . . .

“On Sundays if you want to go to church —”

“I don’t go to church,” said Mrs Butter, and added, “It’s a mockery.”

“We don’t go so very much,” said Evangeline.

“You’d like me to move in — when? I’m quite free.”

Edward Albert discovered Mrs Butter after some days. She looked young and amenable and she regarded him with calm respect. But he had learnt that she was a woman and had begun. He watched her discreetly. He spent a week and a half trying to catch her eye. The atmosphere of the flat improved; things were put in their places; the rooms seemed brighter. Then Mrs Butter, surveying her handiwork in the drawing-room, remarked to Evangeline, “It would look better with a cat.”

They discussed pet animals. “They make things homey,11 Mrs Butter thought. Dogs she did not like, they fawned upon you and tried to lick your face, but cats, nice cats, had dignity. They knew their place. “But they have a lot of kittens,” said Evangeline. “Not the cat I know,” said Mrs Butter. And presently a mitigated young Tom, glossy black with yellow eyes, reposed upon the Tewler hearthrug and blinked at Mrs Butter putting the buttered tea-cake on the brass trivet, which was another of her helpful suggestions.

One afternoon a little later she was kneeling in the same place, tickling the cat’s throat and fighting his claws. Her crouching figure looked very pleasantly feminine. Evangeline was in her own room lying down. Suddenly Mrs Butter found Edward Albert pressing himself against her. “Pussy, pussy,” he said.

She could feel his body trembling. He slid a caressing hand down her shoulder and the line of her hips. He gave her a pat and the beginning of a pinch.

She shook herself away from him and rose to her feet. She faced him, regarding him steadily. She did not appear to be in the least excited or angry.

She spoke calmly and almost as if she had had her little speech prepared for some days.

“I don’t want to seem wanting in respect, Mr Tewler, but if you do anything of that sort again I’ll smack you face hard and-march right out of this house. I’ve had enough jiggery-pokery from one man to last me a lifetime. I don’t want to be a bit disagreeable. I know what men are, they don’t seem able to help it, but the less I have to do with them the better. You keep your place and I’ll keep mine and we’ll get along nicely. I don’t want to make no upset here. I like the missus somehow and I’m sorry for her. Else I wouldn’t stay. She’s awake. That’s her little table bell.”

She stepped round him as one steps round something unpleasant on the carpet.

“Coming,” she cried to Evangeline.

Edward Albert attempted an ironical whistle, but Mrs Butter held her position, intacta. There was no mistaking her sincerity. He decided henceforth to treat her with cold disdain — and be damned to her!

He wished he knew some chaps, some really fast chaps, who would give him just the hints he needed for a real man’s life in London. He had heard of clubs but he did not know anyone who could introduce him to one. There you get together with fellows in the know. . . .

That dream common to your Homo Tewler Anglicanus and Americanus of getting together with fellows in the know, of conniving together in clubs, was soon to spin fraternally in rotaries about the world, A great brotherly idea.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02