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   Chapter 8 No.8

A Mummer's Wife By George Moore Characters: 23583

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

By well-known ways the dog comes back to his kennel, the sheep to the fold the horse to the stable, and even so did Kate return to her sentimental self. One day she was turning over the local paper, and suddenly, as if obeying a long forgotten instinct, her eyes wandered to the poetry column, and again, just as in old time, she was caught by the same simple sentiments of sadness and longing. She found there the usual song, in which regret rhymes to forget. The same dear questions which used to enchant seven years ago were again asked in the same simple fashion; and they touched her now as they had before. She refound all her old dreams. It seemed as if not a day had passed over her. When she was a girl she used to collect every scrap of love poetry that appeared in the local paper, and paste them into a book, and now, the events of the week having roused her from the lethargy into which she had fallen, she turned for a poem to the Hanley Courier as instinctively as an awakened child turns to the breast.

The verses she happened to hit on were after her own heart, and just what were required to complete the transformation of her character:

'I love thee, I love thee, how fondly, how well

Let the years that are coming my constancy tell;

I think of thee daily, my night-thoughts are thine;

In fairy-like vision thy hand presses mine;

And even though absent you dwell in my heart;

Of all that is dear to me, dearest, thou art.'

In reading these lines Kate's heart began to beat quickly, her eyes filled with tears, and wrapped in brightness, like a far distant coast-line, a vision of her girlhood arose. She recalled the emotions she once experienced, the books she had read, and the poetry that was lying upstairs in an old trunk pushed under the bed. It seemed to her wonderful that it had been forgotten so long; her memory skipped from one fragment to the other, picking up a word here, a phrase there, until a remembrance of her favourite novel seized her; she became the heroine of the absurd fiction, substituting herself for the lady who used to read Byron and Shelley to the gentleman who went to India in despair.

As the fitness of the comparison dawned upon her, she yielded to an ineffable sentiment of weakness: George was the husband's name in the book, she was Helene, and Dick was the lover to whom she could not, would not, give herself, and who on that account had gone away in despair. The coincidence appeared to her as something marvellous, something above nature, and she turned it over, examined it in her mind, as a child would a toy, till, forgetful of her desire to overlook these relics of old times, she went upstairs to the workroom.

The missed visit to the theatre was a favourite theme of conversation between the two women. Kate listened to what went on behind the scenes with greater indulgence, and she seemed to become more accustomed to the idea that Bill and Hender were something more than friends. She was conscious of disloyalty to her own upbringing and to her mother-in-law who loved her, and she often blamed herself and resolved never to allow Hender to speak ill again of Mrs. Ede. But the temptation to complain was insidious. It was not every woman who would consent, as she did, to live under the same roof as her mother-in-law, and Hender, who hated Mrs. Ede, who spoke of her as the 'hag,' never lost an opportunity of pointing out the fact that the house was Kate's house and not Mrs. Ede's. The first time Hender said, 'After all, the house is yours,' Kate was pleased, but the girl insisted too much, and Kate was often irritated against her assistant, and she often raged inwardly. It was abominable to have her thoughts interpreted by Hender. She loved her mother-in-law dearly, she didn't know what she'd do without her, but-So it went on; struggle as she would with herself, there still lay at the bottom of her mind the thought that Mrs. Ede had prevented her from going that evening to the theatre, and turn, twist, and wander away as she would, it invariably came back to her.

Frequently Miss Hender had to repeat her questions before she obtained an intelligible answer, and often, without even vouchsafing a reply, Kate would pitch her work aside nervously. Her thoughts were not in her work; she waited impatiently for an opportunity of turning out the old trunk, full of the trinkets, books, verses, remembrances of her youth, which lay under her bed, pushed up against the wall. But a free hour was only possible when Ralph was out. Then her mother-in-law had to mind the shop, and Kate would be sure of privacy at the top of the house.

There was no valid reason why she should dread being found out in so innocent an amusement as turning over a few old papers. Her fear was merely an unreasoned and nervous apprehension of ridicule. Ever since she could remember, her sentimentality was always a subject either of mourning or pity; in allowing it to die out of her heart she had learned to feel ashamed of it; the idea of being discovered going back to it revolted her, and she did not know which would annoy her the most, her husband's sneers or Mrs. Ede's blank alarm. Kate remembered how she used to be told that novels must be wicked and sinful because there was nothing in them that led the soul to God, and she resolved to avoid further lectures on this subject. She devoted herself to the task of persuading Ralph to leave his counter and to go out for a walk. This was not easy, but she arrived at last at the point of helping him on with his coat and handing him his hat; then, conducting him to the door, she bade him not to walk fast and to be sure to keep in the sun. She then went upstairs, her mind relaxed, determined to enjoy herself to the extent of allowing her thoughts for an hour or so to wander at their own sweet will.

The trunk was an oblong box covered with brown hair; to pull it out she had to get under the bed, and it was with trembling and eager fingers that she untied the old twisted cords. Remembrance with Kate was a cult, but her husband's indifference and her mother-in-law's hard, determined opposition had forced the past out of sight; but now on the first encouragement it gushed forth like a suppressed fountain that an incautious hand had suddenly liberated. And with what joy she turned over the old books! She examined the colour of the covers, she read a phrase here and there: they were all so dear to her that she did not know which she loved the best. Scenes, heroes, and heroines long forgotten came back to her, and in what minuteness, and how vividly! It appeared to her that she could not go on fast enough; her emotion gained upon her until she became quite hysterical; in turning feverishly over some papers a withered pansy floated into her lap. Tears started to her eyes, and she pressed the poor little flower, forgotten so long, to her lips. She could not remember when she gathered it, but it had come to her. Her lips quivered, the light seemed to be growing dark, and a sudden sense of misery eclipsed her happiness, and unable to restrain herself any longer, she burst into a tumultuous storm of sobs.

But after having cried for a few minutes her passion subsided, and she wiped the tears from her hands and face, and, smiling at herself, she continued her search. Everything belonging to that time interested her, verses and faded flowers; but her thoughts were especially centred on an old copybook in which she kept the fragments of poetry that used to strike her fancy at the moment. When she came upon it her heart beat quicker, and with mild sentiments of regret she read through the slips of newspaper; they were all the same, but as long as anyone was spoken of as being the nearest and the dearest Kate was satisfied. Even the bonbon mottoes, of which there were large numbers, drew from her the deepest sighs. The little Cupid firing at a target in the shape of a heart, with 'Tom Smith & Co., London,' printed in small letters underneath, did not prevent her from sharing the sentiment expressed in the lines:

'Let this cracker, torn asunder,

Be an emblem of my heart;

And as we have shared the plunder,

Pray you of my love take part.'

Sitting on the floor, with one hand leaning on the open trunk, she read, letting her thoughts drift through past scenes and sensations. All was far away; and she turned over the relics that the past had thrown up on the shore of the present without seeing any connection between them and the needs of the moment until she lit on the following verses:

'Wearily I'm waiting for you,

For your absence watched in vain

Ask myself the hopeless question,

Will he ever come again?

'All these years, am I forgotten?

Or in absence are you true?

Oh, my darling, 'tis so lonely,

Watching, waiting here for you!

'Has your heart from its allegiance

Turned to greet a fairer face?

Have you welcomed in another

Charms you missed in me, and grace?

'Long, long years I have been waiting,

Bearing up against my pain;

All my thoughts and vows have vanished,

Will they ever come again?

'Yes, for woman's faith ne'er leaves her,

And my trust outweighs my fears;

And I still will wait his coming,

Though it may not be for years.'

As the deer, when he believes he has eluded the hounds, leaves the burning plains and plunges into the cool woodland water, Kate bathed her tired soul, letting it drink its fill of this very simple poem. The sentiment came to her tenderly, through the weak words; and melting with joy, she repeated them over and over again.

At last her sad face lit up with a smile. It had occurred to her to send the poem that gave her so much pleasure to Dick. It would make him think of her when he was far away; it would tell him that she had not forgotten him. The idea pleased her so much that it did not occur to her to think if she would be doing wrong in sending these verses to her lodger, and with renewed ardour and happiness she continued her search among her books. There was no question in her mind as to which she would read, and she anticipated hours of delight in tracing resemblances between herself and the lady who used to read Byron and Shelley to her aristocratic lover. She feared at first she had lost this novel, but when it was discovered it was put aside for immediate use. The next that came under her hand was the story of a country doctor. In this instance the medical hero had poisoned one sister to whom he was secretly married in order that he might wed a second. Kate at first hesitated, but remembering that there was an elopement, with a carriage overturned in a muddy lane, she decided upon looking it through again. Another book related the love of a young lady who found herself in the awkward predicament of not being able to care for anyone but her groom, who was lucky enough to be the possessor of the most wonderful violet eyes. The fourth described the distressing position of a young clergyman who, when he told the lady of his choice that his means for the moment did not admit of his taking a wife, was answered that it did not matter, for in the meantime she was quite willing to be his mistress. This devotion and self-sacrifice touched Kate so deeply that she was forced to pause in her search to consider how those who have loved much are forgiven. But at this moment Mrs. Ede entered.

'Oh, Kate, what are you doing?'

Although the question was asked in an intonation of voice affecting to be one of astonishment only, there was nevertheless in it an accent of reproof that was especially irritating to Kate in her present mood. A deaf anger against her mother-in-law's interference oppressed her, but getting the better of it, she

said quietly, though somewhat sullenly:

'You always want to know what I'm doing! I declare, one can't turn round but you're after me, just like a shadow.'

'What you say is unjust, Kate,' replied the old woman warmly. 'I'm sure I never pry after you.'

'Well, anyhow, there it is: I'm looking out for a book to read in the evenings, if you want to know.'

'I thought you'd given up reading those vain and sinful books; they can't do you any good.'

'What harm can they do me?'

'They turn your thoughts from Christ. I've looked into them to see that I may not be speaking wrongly, and I've found them nothing but vain accounts of the world and its worldliness. I didn't read far, but what I saw was a lot of excusing of women who couldn't love their husbands, and much sighing after riches and pleasure. I thanked God you'd given over such things. I believed your heart was turned towards Him. Now it grieves me bitterly to see I was mistaken.'

'I don't know what you mean. Ralph never said that there was any harm in my reading tales.'

'Ah! Ralph, I'm afraid, has never set a good example. I wouldn't blame him, for he's my own son, but I'd wish to see him not prizing so highly the things of the world.'

'We must live, though,' Kate answered, without quite understanding what she said.

'Live-of course we have to live; but it depends how we live and what we live for-whether it be to indulge the desires of the flesh, the desire of the eye, or to regain the image of God, to have the design of God again planted in our souls. This is what we should live for, and it is only thus that we shall find true happiness.'

Though these were memories of phrases heard in the pulpit, they were uttered by Mrs. Ede with a fervour, with a candour of belief, that took from them any appearance of artificiality; and Kate did not notice that her mother-in-law was using words that were not habitual to her.

'But what do you want me to do?' said Kate, who began to feel frightened.

'To go to Christ, to love Him. He is all we have to help us, and they who love Him truly are guided as to how to live righteously. Whether we eat or drink, or whatever we do, it springs from or leads to the love of God and man.'

These words stirred Kate to her very entrails; a sudden gush of feeling brought the tears to her eyes, and she was on the point of throwing herself into Mrs. Ede's arms.

The temptation to have a good cry was almost irresistible, and the burden of her pent-up emotions was more than she could bear. But communing the while rapidly within herself, she hesitated, until an unexpected turn of thought harshly put it before her that she was being made a fool of-that she had a perfect right to look through her books and poetry, and that Hender's sneers were no more than she deserved for allowing a mother-in-law to bully her. Then the tears of sorrow became those of anger, and striving to speak as rudely as she could, she said:

'I don't talk about Christ as much as you, but He judges us by our hearts and not by our words. You would do well to humble yourself before you come to preach to others.'

'Dear Kate, it's because I see you interested in things that have no concern with God's love that I speak to you so. A man who never knows a thought of God has been staying here, and I fear he has led you--'

At these words Kate threw the last papers into the trunk, pushed it away, and turned round fiercely.

'Led me into what? What do you mean? Mr. Lennox was here because Ralph wished him to be here. I think that you should know better than to say such things. I don't deserve it.'

On this Kate left the room, her face clouded and trembling with a passion that she did not quite feel. To just an appreciable extent she was conscious that it suited her convenience to quarrel with her mother-in-law. She was tired of the life she was leading; her whole heart was in her novels and poetry; and, determined to take in the London Reader or Journal, she called back to Mrs. Ede that she was going to consult Ralph on the matter.

He was in capital spirits. The affairs in the shop were going on more satisfactorily than usual, a fact which he did not fail to attribute to his superior commercial talents. 'A business like theirs went to the bad,' he declared, 'when there wasn't a man to look after it. Women liked being attended to by one of the other sex,' and beaming with artificial smiles, the little man measured out yards of ribbon, and suggested 'that they had a very superior thing in the way of petticoats just come from Manchester.' His health was also much improved, so much so that his asthmatic attack seemed to have done him good. A little colour flushed his cheeks around the edges of the thick beard. In the evenings after supper, when the shop was closed, an hour before they went up to prayers, he would talk of the sales he had made during the day, and speak authoritatively of the possibilities of enlarging the business. His ambition was to find someone in London who would forward them the latest fashions; somebody who would be clever enough to pick out and send them some stylish but simple dress that Kate could copy. He would work the advertisements, and if the articles were well set in the window he would answer for the rest. The great difficulty was, of course, the question of frontage, and Mr. Ede's face grew grave as he thought of his little windows. 'Nothing,' he said, 'can be done without plate-glass; five hundred pounds would buy out the fruit-seller, and throw the whole place into one'; and Kate, interested in all that was imaginative, would raise her eyes from the pages of her book and ask if there was no possibility of realizing this grand future.

She was reading a novel full of the most singular and exciting scenes. In it she discovered a character who reminded her of her husband, a courtier at the Court of Louis XIV., who said sharp things, and often made himself disagreeable, but there was something behind that pleased, and under the influence of this fancy she began to find new qualities in Ralph, the existence of which she had not before suspected. Sometimes the thought struck her that if he had been always like what he was now she would have loved him better, and listening to a dispute which had arisen between him and his mother regarding the purchase of the fruiterer's premises, her smile deepened, and then, the humour of the likeness continuing to tickle her, she burst out laughing.

'What are you laughing at, Kate?' said her husband, looking admiringly at her pretty face. Mrs. Ede sternly continued her knitting, but Ralph seemed so pleased, and begged so good-naturedly to be told what the matter was, that the temptation to do so grew irresistible.

'You won't be angry if I tell you?'

'Angry, no. Why should I be angry?'

'You promise?'

'Yes, I promise,' replied Ralph, extremely curious.

'Well then, there is a cha-cha-rac-ter so-so like--'

'Oh, if you want to tell me, don't laugh like that. I can't hear a word you're saying.'

'Oh it is so-so-so like--'

'Yes, but do stop laughing and tell me.'

At last Kate had to stop laughing for want of breath, and she said, her voice still trembling:

'Well, there's a fellow in this book-you promise not to be angry?'

'Oh yes, I promise.'

'Well, then, there's someone in this book that does remind me so much-of you-that is to say, when you're cross, not as you are now.'

At this announcement Mrs. Ede looked up in astonishment, and she seemed as hurt as if Kate had slapped her in the face, whereas Ralph's face lighted up, his smile revealing through the heavy moustache the gap between his front teeth which had been filled with some white substance. Kate always noticed it with aversion, but Ralph, who was not susceptible to feminine revulsions of feelings, begged her to read the passage, and with an eagerness that surprised his mother. Without giving it a second thought she began, but she had not read half a dozen words before Mrs. Ede had gathered up her knitting and was preparing to leave the room.

'Oh, mother, don't go! I assure you there's no harm.'

'Leave her alone. I'm sick of all this nonsense about religion. I should like to know what harm we're doing,' said Ralph.

Kate made a movement to rise, but he laid his hand upon her arm, and a moment after Mrs. Ede was gone.

'Oh, do let me go and fetch her,' exclaimed Kate. 'I shouldn't-I know I shouldn't read these books. It pains her so much to see me wasting my time. She must be right.'

'There's no right about it; she'd bully us all if she had her way. Do be quiet, Kate! Do as I tell you, and let's hear the story.'

Relinquishing another half-hearted expostulation which rose to her lips, Kate commenced to read. Ralph was enchanted, and, deliciously tickled at the idea that he was like someone in print, he chuckled under his breath. Soon they came to the part that had struck Kate as being so particularly appropriate to her husband. It concerned a scene between this ascetic courtier and a handsome, middle-aged widow who frequently gave him to understand that her feelings regarding him were of the tenderest kind; but on every occasion he pretended to misunderstand her. The humour of the whole thing consisted in the innocence of the lady, who fancied she had not explained herself sufficiently; and harassed with this idea, she pursued the courtier from the Court hall into the illuminated gardens, and there told him, and in language that admitted of no doubt, that she wished to marry him. The courtier was indignant, and answered her so tartly that Kate, even in reading it over a second time, could not refrain from fits of laughter.

'It is-is so-s-o like what you w-wo-uld say if a wo-wo-man were to fol-low you,' she said, with the tears rolling down her cheeks.

'Is it really?' asked Ralph, joining in the laugh, although in a way that did not seem to be very genuine. The fact was that he felt just a little piqued at being thought so indifferent to the charms of the other sex, and looked at his wife for a moment or two in a curious sort of way, trying to think how he should express himself. At last he said:

'I'm sure that if it was my own Kate who was there I shouldn't answer so crossly.'

Kate ceased laughing, and looked up at him so suddenly that she increased his embarrassment; but the remembrance that he was after all only speaking to his wife soon came to his aid, and confidentially he sat down beside her on the sofa. Her first impulse was to draw away from him-it was so long since he had spoken to her thus.

'Could you never love me again if I were very kind to you?'

'Of course I love you, Ralph.'

'It wasn't my fault if I was ill-one doesn't feel inclined to love anyone in illness. Give me a kiss, dear.'

A recollection of how she had kissed Dick flashed across her mind, but in an instant it was gone; and bending her head, she laid her lips to her husband's. It in no way disgusted her to do so; she was glad of the occasion, and was only surprised at the dull and obtuse anxiety she experienced. They then spoke of indifferent things, but the flow of conversation was often interrupted by complimentary phrases. While Ralph discoursed on his mother's nonsense in always dragging religion into everything, Kate congratulated him on looking so much better; and, as she told him of the work she would have to get through at all costs before Friday, he either squeezed her hand or said that her hair was getting thicker, longer, and more beautiful than ever.

* * * * *

Next morning Kate received a letter from Dick, saying he was coming to Hanley on his return visit, and hoped that he would be able to have his old rooms.

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