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   Chapter 1 No.1

A Mummer's Wife By George Moore Characters: 21070

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

In default of a screen, a gown and a red petticoat had been thrown over a clothes-horse, and these shaded the glare of the lamp from the eyes of the sick man. In the pale obscurity of the room, his bearded cheeks could be seen buried in a heap of tossed pillows. By his bedside sat a young woman. As she dozed, her face drooped until her features were hidden, and the lamp-light made the curious curves of a beautiful ear look like a piece of illuminated porcelain. Her hands lay upon her lap, her needlework slipped from them; and as it fell to the ground she awoke.

She pressed her hands against her forehead and made an effort to rouse herself. As she did so, her face contracted with an expression of disgust, and she remembered the ether. The soft, vaporous odour drifted towards her from a small table strewn with medicine bottles, and taking care to hold the cork tightly in her fingers she squeezed it into the bottle.

At that moment the clock struck eleven and the clear tones of its bell broke the silence sharply; the patient moaned as if in reply, and his thin hairy arms stirred feverishly on the wide patchwork counterpane. She took them in her hands and covered them over; she tried to arrange the pillows more comfortably, but as she did so he turned and tossed impatiently, and, fearing to disturb him, she put back the handkerchief she had taken from the pillow to wipe the sweat from his brow, and regaining her chair, with a weary movement she picked up the cloth that had fallen from her knees and slowly continued her work.

It was a piece of patchwork like the counterpane on the bed; the squares of a chessboard had been taken as a design, and, selecting a fragment of stuff, she trimmed it into the required shape and sewed it into its allotted corner.

Nothing was now heard but the methodical click of her needle as it struck the head of her thimble, and then the long swish of the thread as she drew it through the cloth. The lamp at her elbow burned steadily, and the glare glanced along her arm as she raised it with the large movement of sewing.

Her hair was blue wherever the light touched it, and it encircled the white prominent temple like a piece of rich black velvet; a dark shadow defined the delicate nose, and hinted at thin indecision of lips, whilst a broad touch of white marked the weak but not unbeautiful chin.

On the corner of the table lay a book, a well-worn volume in a faded red paper cover. It was a novel she used to read with delight when she was a girl, but it had somehow failed to interest her, and after a few pages she had laid it aside, preferring for distraction her accustomed sewing. She was now well awake, and, as she worked, her thoughts turned on things concerning the daily routine of her life. She thought of the time when her husband would be well: of the pillow she was making; of how nice it would look in the green armchair; of the much greater likelihood of letting their rooms if they were better furnished; of their new lodger; and of the probability of a quarrel between him and her mother-in-law, Mrs. Ede.

For more than a week past the new lodger had formed the staple subject of conversation in this household. Mrs. Ede, Kate's mother-in-law, was loud in her protestations that the harbouring of an actor could not but be attended by bad luck. Kate felt a little uneasy; her puritanism was of a less marked kind; perhaps at first she had felt inclined to agree with her mother-in-law, but her husband had shown himself so stubborn, and had so persistently declared that he was not going to keep his rooms empty any longer, that for peace' sake she was fain to side with him. The question arose in a very unexpected way. During the whole winter they were unfortunate with their rooms, though they made many attempts to get lodgers; they even advertised. Some few people asked to see the rooms; but they merely made an offer. One day a man who came into the shop to buy some paper collars asked Kate if she had any apartments to let. She answered yes, and they went upstairs. After a cursory inspection he told her that he was the agent in advance to a travelling opera company, and that if she liked he would recommend her rooms to the stage manager, a particular friend of his. The proposition was somewhat startling, but, not liking to say no, she proposed to refer the matter to her husband.

At that particular moment Ede happened to be engaged in a violent dispute with his mother, and so angry was he that when Mrs. Ede raised her hands to protest against the introduction of an actor into the household, he straightway told her that 'if she didn't like it she might do the other thing.' Nothing more was said at the time; the old lady retired in indignation, and Mr. Lennox was written to. Kate sympathized alternately with both sides. Mrs. Ede was sturdy in defence of her principles; Ede was petulant and abusive; and between the two Kate was blown about like a feather in a storm. Daily the argument waxed warmer, until one night, in the middle of a scene characterized by much Biblical quotation, Ede declared he could stand it no longer, and rushed out of the house. In vain the women tried to stop him, knowing well what the consequences would be. A draught, a slight exposure, sufficed to give him a cold, and with him a cold always ended in an asthmatic attack. And these were often so violent as to lay him up for weeks at a time. When he returned, his temper grown cooler under the influence of the night air, he was coughing, and the next night found him breathless. His anger had at first vented itself against his mother, whom he refused to see, and thus the whole labour of nursing him was thrown on Kate. She didn't grumble at this, but it was terrible to have to listen to him.

It was Mr. Lennox, and nothing but Mr. Lennox. All the pauses in the suffocation were utilized to speak on this important question, and even now Kate, who had not yet perceived that the short respite which getting rid of the phlegm had given him was coming to an end, expected him to say something concerning the still unknown person. But Ede did not speak, and, to put herself as it were out of suspense, she referred to some previous conversation:

'I'm sure you're right; the only people in the town who let their rooms are those who have a theatrical connection.'

'Oh, I don't care; I'm going to have a bad night,' said Mr. Ede, who now thought only of how he should get his next breath.

'But you seemed to be getting better,' she replied hurriedly.

'No! I feel it coming on-I'm suffocating. Have you got the ether?'

Kate did not answer, but made a rapid movement towards the table, and snatching the bottle she uncorked it. The sickly odour quietly spread like oil over the close atmosphere of the room, but, mastering her repugnance, she held it to him, and in the hope of obtaining relief he inhaled it greedily. But the remedy proved of no avail, and he pushed the bottle away.

'Oh, these headaches! My head is splitting,' he said, after a deep inspiration which seemed as if it would cost him his life. 'Nothing seems to do me any good. Have you got any cigarettes?'

'I'm sorry, they haven't arrived yet. I wrote for them,' she replied, hesitating; 'but don't you think-?'

He shook his head; and, resenting Kate's assiduities, with trembling fingers he unfastened the shawl she had placed on his shoulders, and then, planting his elbows on his knees, with a fixed head and elevated shoulders, he gave himself up to the struggle of taking breath…. At that moment she would have laid down her life to save him from the least of his pains, but she could only sit by him watching the struggle, knowing that nothing could be done to relieve him. She had seen the same scene repeated a hundred times before, but it never seemed to lose any of its terror. In the first month of their marriage she had been frightened by one of these asthmatic attacks. It had come on in the middle of the night, and she remembered well how she had prayed to God that it should not be her fate to see her husband die before her eyes. She knew now that death was not to be apprehended-the paroxysm would wear itself out-but she knew also of the horrors that would have to be endured before the time of relief came. She could count them upon her fingers-she could see it all as in a vision-a nightmare that would drag out its long changes until the dawn began to break; she anticipated the hours of the night.

'Air! Air! I'm suff-o-cating!' he sobbed out with a desperate effort.

Kate ran to the window and threw it open. The paroxysm had reached its height, and, resting his elbows well on his knees, he gasped many times, but before the inspiration was complete his strength failed him. No want but that of breath could have forced him to try again; and the second effort was even more terrible than the first. A great upheaval, a great wrenching and rocking seemed to be going on within him; the veins on his forehead were distended, the muscles of his chest laboured, and it seemed as if every minute were going to be his last. But with a supreme effort he managed to catch breath, and then there was a moment of respite, and Kate could see that he was thinking of the next struggle, for he breathed avariciously, letting the air that had cost him so much agony pass slowly through his lips. To breathe again he would have to get on to his feet, which he did, and so engrossed was he in the labour of breathing that he pushed the paraffin lamp roughly; it would have fallen had Kate not been there to catch it. She besought of him to say what he wanted, but he made no reply, and continued to drag himself from one piece of furniture to another, till at last, grasping the back of a chair, he breathed by jerks, each inspiration being accompanied by a violent spasmodic wrench, violent enough to break open his chest. She watched, expecting every moment to see him roll over, a corpse, but knowing from past experiences that he would recover somehow. His recoveries always seemed to her like miracles, and she watched the long pallid face crushed under a shock of dark matted hair, a dirty nightshirt, a pair of thin legs; but for the moment the grandeur of human suffering covered him, lifting him beyond the pale of loving or loathing, investing and clothing him in the pity of tragic things. The room, too, seemed transfigured. The bare wide floor, the gaunt bed, the poor walls plastered with religious prints cu

t from journals, even the ordinary furniture of everyday use-the little washhandstand with the common delf ewer, the chest of drawers that might have been bought for thirty shillings-lost their coarseness; their triviality disappeared, until nothing was seen or felt but this one suffering man.

The minutes slipped like the iron teeth of a saw over Kate's sensibilities. A hundred times she had run over in her mind the list of remedies she had seen him use. They were few in number, and none of any real service except the cigarettes which she had not. She asked him to allow her to try iodine, but he could not or would not make her any answer. It was cruel to see him struggling, but he resisted assistance, and watching like one in a dream, frightened at her own powerlessness to save or avert, Kate remained crouching by the fireplace without strength to think or act, until she was suddenly awakened by seeing him relax his hold and slip heavily on the floor; and it was only by putting forth her whole strength she could get him into a sitting position; when she attempted to place him in a chair he slipped through her arms. There was, therefore, nothing to do but to shriek for help, and hope to awaken her mother-in-law. The echoes rang through the house, and as they died away, appalled, she listened to the silence.

At length it grew clear that Mrs. Ede could not be awakened, and Kate saw that she would have to trust to herself alone, and after two or three failures she applied herself to winning him back to consciousness. It was necessary to do so before attempting to move him again, and, sprinkling his face with water, she persuaded him to open his eyes, and after one little stare he slipped back into the nothingness he had come out of; and this was repeated several times, Kate redoubling her efforts until at last she succeeded in placing him in a chair. He sat there, still striving and struggling with his breath, unable to move, and soaked with sweat, but getting better every minute. The worst of the attack was now over; she buttoned his nightshirt across his panting chest and covered his shoulders with his red shawl once more, and with a sentiment of real tenderness she took his hand in hers. She looked at him, feeling her heart grow larger.

He was her husband; he had suffered terribly, and was now getting better; and she was his wife, whose duty it was to attend him. She only wished he would allow her to love him a little better; but against her will facts pierced through this luminous mist of sentiment, and she could not help remembering how petulant he was with her, how utterly all her wishes were disregarded. 'What a pity he's not a little different!' she thought; but when she looked at him and saw how he suffered, all other thoughts were once more drowned and swept away. She forgot how he often rendered her life miserable, wellnigh unbearable, by small vices, faults that defy definition, unending selfishness and unceasing irritability. But now all dissatisfaction and bitternesses were again merged into a sentiment that was akin to love; and in this time of physical degradation he possessed her perhaps more truly, more perfectly, than even in his best moments of health.

But her life was one of work, not of musing, and there was plenty for her to attend to. Ralph would certainly not be able to leave his chair for some time yet; she had wrapped him up comfortably in a blanket, she could do no more, and whilst he was recovering it would be as well to tidy up the room a bit. He would never be able to sleep in a bed that he had been lying in all day; she had better make the bed at once, for he generally got a little ease towards morning, particularly after a bad attack. So, hoping that the present occasion would not prove an exception, Kate set to work to make the bed. She resolved to do this thoroughly, and turning the mattress over, she shook it with all her force. She did the same with the pillows, and fearing that there might be a few crumbs sticking to the sheets, she shook them out several times; and when the last crease had been carefully smoothed away she went back to her husband and insisted on being allowed to paint his back with iodine, although he did not believe in the remedy. On his saying he was thirsty, she went creeping down the narrow stairs to the kitchen, hunted for matches in the dark, lighted a spirit lamp and made him a hot drink, which he drank without thanking her. She fell to thinking of his ingratitude, and then of the discomfort of the asthma. How could she expect him to think of her when he was thinking of his breath? All the same, on these words her waking thoughts must have passed into dream thoughts. She was still watching by his bedside, waiting to succour him whenever he should ask for help, yet she must have been asleep. She did not know how long she slept, but it could not have been for long; and there was no reason for his peevishness, for she had not left him.

'I'm sorry, Ralph, but I could not help it, I was so very tired. What can I do for you, dear?'

'Do for me?' he said-'why, shut the window. I might have died for all you would have known or cared.'

She walked across the room and shut the window, but as she came back to her place she said, 'I don't know why you speak to me like that, Ralph.'

'Prop me up: if I lie so low I shall get bad again. If you had a touch of this asthma you'd know what it is to lie alone for hours.'

'For hours, Ralph?' Kate repeated, and she looked at the clock and saw that she had not been asleep for more than half an hour. Without contradicting him-for of what use would that be, only to make matters worse?-she arranged the pillows and settled the blankets about him, and thinking it would be advisable to say something, she congratulated him on seeming so much better.

'Better! If I'm better, it's no thanks to you,' he said. 'You must have been mad to leave the window open so long.'

'You wanted it open; you know very well that when you're very bad like that you must have change of air. The room was so close.'

'Yes, but that is no reason for leaving it open half an hour.'

'I offered to shut it, and you wouldn't let me.'

'I dare say you're sick of nursing me, and would like to get rid of me. The window wasn't a bad dodge.'

Kate remained silent, being too indignant for the moment to think of replying; but it was evident from her manner that she would not be able to contain herself much longer. He had hurt her to the quick, and her brown eyes swam with tears. His head lay back upon the built-up pillows, he fumed slowly, trying to find new matter for reproach, and breath wherewith to explain it. At last he thought of the cigarettes.

'Even supposing that you did not remember how long you left the window open, I cannot understand how you forgot to send for the cigarettes. You know well enough that smoking is the only thing that relieves me when I'm in this state. I think it was most unfeeling-yes, most unfeeling!' Having said so much, he leaned forward to get breath, and coughed.

'You'd better lie still, Ralph; you'll only make yourself bad again. Now that you feel a little easier you should try to go to sleep.'

So far she got without betraying any emotion, but as she continued to advise him her voice began to tremble, her presence of mind to forsake her, and she burst into a flood of tears.

'I don't know how you can treat me as you do,' she said, sobbing hysterically. 'I do everything-I give up my night's rest to you, I work hard all day for you, and in return I only receive hard words. Oh, it's no use,' she said; 'I can bear it no longer; you'll have to get someone else to mind you.'

This outburst of passion came suddenly upon Mr. Ede, and for some time he was at a loss how to proceed. At last, feeling a little sorry, he resolved to make it up, and putting out his hand to her, he said:

'Now, don't cry, Kate; perhaps I was wrong in speaking so crossly. I didn't mean all I said-it's this horrid asthma.'

'Oh, I can bear anything but to be told I neglect you-and when I stop up watching you three nights running--'

These little quarrels were of constant occurrence. Irritable by nature, and rendered doubly so by the character of his complaint, the invalid at times found it impossible to restrain his ill-humour; but he was not entirely bad; he inherited a touch of kind-heartedness from his mother, and being now moved by Kate's tears, he said:

'That's quite true, and I'm sorry for what I said; you are a good little nurse. I won't scold you again. Make it up.'

Kate found it hard to forget merely because Ralph desired it, and for some time she refused to listen to his expostulations, and walked about the room crying, but her anger could not long resist the dead weight of sleep that was oppressing her, and eventually she came and sat down in her own place by him. The next step to reconciliation was more easy. Kate was not vindictive, although quicktempered, and at last, amid some hysterical sobbing, peace was restored. Ralph began to speak of his asthma again, telling how he had fancied he was going to die, and when she expressed her fear and regret he hastened to assure her that no one ever died of asthma, that a man might live fifty, sixty, or seventy years, suffering all the while from the complaint; and he rambled on until words and ideas together failed him, and he fell asleep. With a sigh of relief Kate rose to her feet, and seeing that he was settled for the night, she turned to leave him, and passed into her room with a slow and dragging movement; but the place had a look so cold and unrestful that it pierced through even her sense of weariness, and she stood urging her tired brains to think of what she should do. At last, remembering that she could get a pillow from the room they reserved for letting, she turned to go.

Facing their room, and only divided by the very narrowest of passages, was the stranger's apartment.

Both doors were approached by a couple of steps, which so reduced the space that were two people to meet on the landing, one would have to give way to the other. Mr. and Mrs. Ede found this proximity to their lodger, when they had one, somewhat inconvenient, but, as he said, 'One doesn't get ten shillings a week for nothing.'

Kate lingered a moment on the threshold, and then, with the hand in which she held the novel she had been reading, she picked up her skirt and stepped across the way.

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