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A Mummer's Wife By George Moore Characters: 29528

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


As the Constellation Company drove to the station, Kate noticed that Rochdale and Hanley were not unlike, and the likeness between the two towns set her thinking how strange it was. Here was the same red town, narrow streets, built of a brick that, under a dull sky, glared to a rich geranium hue. The purplish tints of Hanley alone were wanting, but the heavy smoke-clouds, and the tall stems of the chimneys, were as numerous in Rochdale as in her native place. And, coincidence still more marvellous, Nature had apparently aided and abetted what man's hand had contrived, for in either town a line of hills swept around the sky. The only difference was, that the characteristics of Rochdale were not so marked as those of Hanley. The hills were not so high, nor were they in such close array as those of the Staffordshire town, and the Lancashire valley was not so deep and trench-like as the one that engirdles the potteries. It may be that as much smoke hung over it, but the smoke did not seem so black and poisonous, at least not to Kate's eyes; and, as the train sped along a high embankment a group of factory chimneys emerged from a fold in the hills, and comparing the two landscapes it seemed to her there were more fields in the Lancashire valley, water-courses, trees and hedges-stunted hedges, it is true-but she did not remember any hedges about Hanley. At one moment she was minded to turn to Dick and to call his attention to the likeness in the country they were travelling through to the country she had come from; had she been alone with him she might have asked him, but he was now busy talking of the comic songs and sketches in which they were to act. 'The Mulligan Guards' was one of the items on their programme, and she and Dick were going to sing it together. This would be the first time they had ever sung together. Dick had very little voice, but he was a good actor, and she thought they would be able to make a success of it. He called her attention and the attention of the other members of the Constellation Company to the scattered towns and villages they were passing through.

'The very country for our kind of entertainment,' he said; and all the mummers rose from their seats and gazed at the wolds and factories. Under the green waste of a wold a chimney had been run up; sheds and labourers' cottages had followed, and in five years, if the factory prospered, this beginning would swell into a village, in twenty it would possess twenty thousand inhabitants; for just as in old times the towns followed the castles, so do they now follow in the wake of the factories. The mummers gaped and wondered at the arsenic green sides of the wolds, striped with rough stone walls or blackened with an occasional coalpit, the ridges fringed with trees blown thin by sea-breezes. In the distance, within the folds of the hills, tall chimneys clustered and great clouds of smoke hung listless in the still autumn air. Cold rays of sunlight strayed for a moment on the dead green of the fields, pale as invalids enjoying the air for the last time before a winter seclusion. And later on, when the light mists of evening descended and bore away the landscape, the phantom shapes of the wolds took on a strange appearance, producing in Kate a sensation of mobility, which to escape from, for it frightened her, she turned to Dick and asked how far they were from Bacup. He told her they would be there in about half an hour, and half an hour afterwards Williams, who had gone on in front, met them at the station, and began at once the tale of his industry, saying that he had been in every public-house, and had stood at the corners of all the principal streets distributing bills.

'I think we shall do pretty well,' he said; 'my only bit of bad news is that I haven't been able to find any lodgings for you; there's but one hotel, and all the rooms are taken.'

Dick, who on such occasions always took time by the forelock, insisted on starting at once on their search-and up and down the murky streets of the manufacturing town they walked until it was time for them to repair to the Mechanics' Hall, where they were going to play, and get ready for the entertainment.

'The Mulligan Guards' proved a great success, as did also the operetta, Breaking the Spell. Kate's pretty face and figure won the hearts of the factory hands, and she was applauded whenever she appeared on the stage; and so frequent were the encores that it was half-past ten before they had finished their programme, and close on eleven o'clock before they got out of the hall into the street. Then the search for lodgings had to begin again. Montgomery and Williams, being single men, obtained beds, but Kate and Dick were not so easily satisfied, and they found themselves standing under a porch with the lights going out on all sides, and the prospect of spending a wet night in the street before them. At last Dick bethought himself of the police station, but on applying to a policeman he was directed to the backdoor of a public-house. 'He was pretty sure,' whispered the boy in blue, 'to get put up there.' The door was opened with precaution, and they were allowed in. The place was full of people; it took them a long time to get served, and they were at length told that in the way of a room nothing could be done for them. Every bed in the house was occupied. Kate raised her eyes to Dick, but her look of misery was anticipated by a rough-faced carter who stood at the counter.

'You bear up, little woman,' he said abruptly; 'don't yo' look so froightent. Yo' shall both come up to my place, if yo' will; it isna up to much, but oi'll do th' best I can for yo'.'

There was no mistaking the kindness with which the offer was made, though the idea of going to sleep at this rough man's house for the moment staggered even the mummer. But as it was now clear that they would have either to accept their new friend's hospitality, or spend the night on the doorstep, it did not take them long to decide on the former alternative. Their only reason for hesitating was their inability to understand what were his motives for asking them to come to his place. Then, as if divining the reason of their uncertainty, he said:

'I know yo' well, tho' yo' don't know me. I was up at the 'all to-night, and yo' did make me so laugh that I wouldna' see yo' in the streets for nothing. Neaw, let it be yea or nay, master.'

For answer, Dick put out his hand; and when he had thanked the hospitably inclined carter, put some questions to him about the entertainment. Soon the two began to 'pal,' and after another drink they all went off together.

After wading down a few sloppy streets, he stopped before a low doorway, and ushered them into what looked like an immense kitchen. They saw rafters overhead and an open staircase ascending to the upper rooms, as a ladder might through a series of lofts; and when a candle had been obtained, the first thing their host did was to pull his wife out of bed, and insist on his guests getting into it, a request which the woman joined in as heartily as her husband as soon as the reason for this unceremonious awakening had been explained to her. And so wearied out were Kate and Dick, and so tempting did any place of rest look to them, that they could offer no opposition to the kind intentions of their host and hostess, and they slept heavily until roused next morning by a loud trampling of feet passing through their room. It was the family coming down from the lofts above, and as they descended the staircase they wished their guests a broad Lancashire good-morning.

And when Kate and Dick had recovered from their astonishment, they dressed and went out to buy some provisions, which they hoped to be allowed to cook in the rough kitchen; but when they returned with their purchases they found the carter's daughter standing before an elaborately prepared breakfast, consisting of a huge beefsteak and a high pile of cakes.

'Lor, marm, why did yo' buy those things?' said the girl, disappointed.

'Well,' said Kate, 'we couldn't think of trespassing on you in that fashion. You must, you will, I hope, let us prepare our own breakfast.'

'Feyther will never 'ear of it, I know,' said the girl; and immediately after, the carter, with his brawny arms, pushed Kate and Dick down into two seats at the big table. Both cake and meat were delicious, and Dick's appetite showed such signs of outdoing the carter's that Kate, in the hope of diverting attention, commenced an interesting conversation with the buxom maiden by her side, and so successful were her efforts that a friendship was soon established between the women; and, when the morning's work was done, Mary, of her own accord, sought out Kate, and as she knitted the thick woollen stocking, was easily led into telling the inevitable love story.

We change the surroundings, but a heart bleeds under all social variations; and in this grim manufacturing town when the bridal dress was taken out of its lavender and darkness it seemed to possess a gleam of poetic whiteness that it could not have had even if set off by the pleasant verdure of a Devonshire lane.

'But you'll keep it for another; another will be sure to come by very soon,' said Kate, trying to console.

'Nay, nay, I'll have no other,' said the girl. 'I'll just keep the dress by; but I'll have no other.'

Then the talk hesitated and fell at last into a long narrative concerning tender hopes and illusions to which Kate listened, as all women do, to the story of heart-aches and deceptions; and in after years, when all other remembrances of the black country were swept away, the remembrance of this white dress remained.

From Bacup they went to Whitworth, a town in such immediate neighbourhood that it might be called a suburb of the former place, and there they played in the Co-operative Hall to an audience consisting of a factory man, two children, and a postman who came in on the free list. This was not encouraging; but they, nevertheless, resolved to try the place again; and next day at dinner-time, as the 'hands' were leaving the factories, they distributed some hundreds of bills. Dick said he should never forget it; to watch Pimply Face cutting about, shoving his bills into the women's aprons, was the funniest thing he had ever seen in his life. But their efforts were all in vain. It rained, and not a soul came to see them; and, in addition to their other troubles, they found Whitworth was an awkward place to stop at. Dick and his wife had a room in a pub, but Montgomery and Williams had to walk over each evening to sleep at Bacup. One day their landlady spoke of Clayton-le-Moors, where, she said, a fair was being held, and she advised the Constellation Company to try their entertainment there. This was considered as a sensible suggestion, and the four mummers started for the fair on the top of an omnibus with their wigs and dresses and make-ups stuck under their legs. The weather at least was in their favour. The sunlight rolled over the great white sides of the booths, Aunt Sallies were being shied at, the pubs were all open, and a huge, rollicking population, fetid with the fermenting sweat of the factories, was disporting on whisky and fresh air. Never were the spirits of dejected strolling players buoyed up with a fairer prospect of a harvest.

The next thing to do was to distribute the handbills, and find a place where they could set up their show, and, to conduct their search more thoroughly, they separated, after having decided on a tryst. In this way the town was thoroughly ransacked; but it was not until Kate, who had gone off on her own accord, learnt from the landlord of a public-house, where she had entered to get a drink, that he had a large concert-room overhead, that there seemed to be the slightest chance of the Constellation Company being able to turn the joviality of the factory hands at the fair to any account. Matters now seemed to be looking up, and a very neat little arrangement was entered into with the proprietor of the pub. Four entertainments of ten minutes each were to be given every hour, for each of which the sum of threepence a head was to be charged, twopence to go to the artists, a penny to the landlord, who would, of course, make his 'bit' also out of the drink supplied. And what a success they had that day! Not only did the factory hands come in, but they paid their threepence over and over again. They seemed never to grow tired of hearing Dick and Kate sing 'The Mulligan Guards,' and when she called out 'Corps' and he touched his cap, and they broke into a dance, the delight of the workpeople knew no bounds, and they often stopped the entertainment to hand up their mugs of beer to the mummers with a 'Ave a soop, mon.'

From twelve o'clock in the day until eleven at night the affair was kept going; Kate, Dick, and Williams dancing and singing in turn, and Montgomery all the while spanking away at the dominoes. It was heavy work, but the coin they took was considerable, and it came in handy, for in the next three towns they did very badly. But at Padiham a curious accident turned out in the end very luckily for them. There were but five people in the house, one of whom was drunk. This fellow very humorously in the middle of the entertainment declared that he was going to sing a song; he even wanted to appropriate Williams's wig, and when Dick, who was always chucker-out on such occasions, attempted to eject him, he climbed out of reach and lodged himself in one of the windows. From there he proceeded to call to the people in the street, and with such excellent result that they made £18 in the hall during the evening.

This, and similar slices of good fortune, kept the Constellation Company rolling from one adventure to another. Sometimes a wet day came to their assistance; sometimes a dispute between some factory hands and the masters brought them a little money. Their wants were simple; a bed in a pub, and a steak for dinner was all they asked for. But at last, as winter wore on, ill-fortune commenced to follow them very closely and persistently. They had been to four different towns and had not made a ten-pound note to divide between the lot of them. In the face of such adversity it was not worth while keeping on; besides, Kate's expected confinement rendered it impossible to prolong their little tour much farther. For these reasons, one November morning the Constellation Company, hoping they would soon meet again, under more auspicious circumstances, bade each other good-bye at the railway station. Williams and Montgomery went to Liverpool, Kate and Dick to make a stay at Rochdale, where they had h

eard that many companies were coming. The companies came, it is true, but they were, unfortunately, filled up, and Lennox and his wife could not get an engagement in any of them. The little money saved out of their tour enabled them to keep body and soul together for about a month; but in the fifth week they were telling the landlady lies, and going through all the classic excuses-expecting a letter every day, by Monday at the very latest, etc. In the face of Kate's approaching confinement this was a state of things that made even Dick begin to look anxiously round and fear for the safety of the future. Kate, on the contrary, although fretted and wearied, took matters more easily than might have been expected; and the changing of their last ten shillings frightened her less than had the first announcement of the possible breaking up of Morton and Cox's Operatic Company. Bohemianism had achieved in her its last victory; and having lately seen so many of the difficulties of life solving themselves in ways that were inexplicable to her, she had unconsciously come to think that there was no knot that chance, luck, or fate would not untie. Besides, her big Dick's resources were apparently unlimited; the present weakness of her condition tended to induce her to rely more than ever upon his protection; and in the lassitude of weak hopes, she contented herself with praying occasionally that all would yet come right. But her lover, although he told her nothing of his fears, was not so satisfied. Never before had he been quite so hard pressed. They now owed a week's rent, besides other small debts; all of which they were unable to pay unless they pawned the remainder of their clothes. He said it would be far better for them to go to Manchester, leaving their things, to be redeemed some day, as a security with the landlady-that is to say, if they failed to get out of the house without being perceived by her. They still had half a crown, which would pay Kate's railway fare, and as regards himself, Dick proposed that he should do the journey on foot; he would be able to walk the distance easily in three hours, and at eleven o'clock would join his wife at an address which he gave her, with many injunctions as to the story that was to be told to the landlady. So, as the clock was striking seven one cold winter's morning, they stole quietly downstairs, Dick carrying a small portmanteau. On the table of their room a letter was left, explaining that a telegram received overnight called them to Manchester, but that they hoped to be back again in a few days-a week at latest.

This assurance Dick considered would amply satisfy the old dame, and holding the portmanteau on his shoulder with one arm, and supporting Kate with the other, he made his way to the station.

The day had not yet begun to break. A heavy, sluggish night hung over the town. The streets were filled with puddles and flowing mud; and Kate was frequently obliged to stop and rest against the lamp-posts. She complained of feeling very ill, and she walked with difficulty. In the straggling light of the gas, Dick looked at her pale, pretty features, accentuated by suffering; he felt that he had never known before how dearly he loved her, and the pity for her that filled his heart choked him when he attempted to speak: and his eyes misted with tears and he could not bring his mind to leave her. He thought of the old dodge of travelling on the luggage, but fearing that the woman to whose house they were going would not let them in unless they had at least one portmanteau to show, he determined to adhere to the original plan of sending Kate on in front; and although tortured by many fears, he hid them, assuring her that their troubles would be over once they set foot in Manchester: all he had to do was to go down to the Theatre Royal to get an engagement. And he spoke so kindly that his kindness seemed to repay her for her sufferings.

For some days past she had been subject to violent nauseas and acute pains, and as she bade him goodbye out of the railway-carriage window, she had to bend and press herself against it. And feeling he must encourage her he ran along the platform till the train began to leave him behind, and he stopped out of breath with a cloud of melancholy upon his cheeks, generally so restful in a happy animalism-yet the fat hand lifted the big-brimmed black felt hat, the frizzly curls blew in the cold wind, the train oscillated and then rolled and disappeared round a bend in the line.

That was all. What had been done was over, as completely as the splash made by a stone dropped into a well, and the actor awoke to a feeling that something new had again to be begun.

After descending the steps of the station, he asked to be directed, and for a long time his way lay through a street, made by red brick houses with stucco porches; but at length these commenced to divide into cottages, and after many inquiries, he was shown into what he was told was an old Roman road, called 'Going over Tindel.' The wind blew bitterly, and against a murky sky the fretted trees on the higher ridges were like veils of grey lace.

Walking was not Dick's forte, and leaning against a farm gate, his eyes embraced the wild black scenery, and remembrances of the Hanley hills drifted through his thoughts. There were the same rolling wastes, and like the pieces on a chess-board the factory chimneys appeared at irregular intervals. But these topographical similarities attracted Dick only so far as they filled his mind with old memories and associations, and his thoughts flowed from the time he had stood with his wife at the top of Market Street to the present hour. He neither praised nor blamed himself. He accepted things as they were without criticism, and they appeared to him like a turgid dream swollen and bleak as the confused expanse of distance before him.

The stupor into which he occasionally fell endured until a quick thought would strike through the mental gloom that oppressed him, and relinquishing the farm gate he would moodily resume his walk through the heavy slosh of the wet roads. As he did so the vision of Kate's pain-stricken face haunted him, and at every step his horror of the danger she ran of being taken ill before arriving in Manchester grew darker, and he toiled up hill after hill, yearning to be near her, desiring only the power to relieve and to help. Often the intensity of his longing would force him into a run, and then the farm labourers would turn from their work to gaze on this huge creature, who stood on a hill-top wearily wiping his forehead.

And then he grew sick of the long, staring, rolling landscape, with its thousand sinuosities, its single trees, its detailed foreground of scrub, hedges, brooks, spanned by small brick bridges, the melting distance, the murky sky, the belching chimneys: he asked himself if it would never end, if it would never define itself into the streets of Manchester. And as he descended each incline his eyes searched for the indication of a town, until at last he saw lines of smoke, factories, and masses of brick on his left, and he hastened.

All the markings of the way were looked forward to, the outlying streets seemed endless, and so great was his hurry that before he discovered he was in Oldham, he had walked into the middle of the town.

His disappointment was bitter indeed, almost unbearable, and for the moment he felt that he could go no farther; his courage was exhausted, it was impossible he could face that bleak mocking landscape again. Besides, he was fainting for want of food. Had he possessed a few pence to treat himself to a glass of beer and a bit of bread and cheese, he thought he would be able to pull himself together and make another effort; but he was destitute. Still, he was forced to try again. The thought of Kate burned in his brain, and after having inquired the way, with weary and aching feet he once more trudged manfully on. A fretful suspicion now haunted him that she might not find the landlady as agreeable as would under the circumstances be desirable, and he reasoned with himself as he crossed into the open country, until anxiety became absorbed by fatigue. Of every passer-by did he ask the way, and as he passed the stately villas Dick felt that had there been much farther to walk he would have had to beg a lift from one of the waggoners who passed him constantly driving their heavy teams. But he was now in Manchester, and wondering if he had taken longer to walk than he had expected, he looked into the shop windows in search of a clock, and when he rang at the door of the lodging-house his heart beat as rapidly as the jangling bell that pealed through the house The maid who answered the door told him that she knew of no such person and was about to shut the door in his face, but Dick's good-natured smile compelled her into parley, and she admitted that, having been out on an errand, she had not seen the missus since ten o'clock. A lady might have called, but she wasn't in the house now; they were as full as they could hold.

'And are you certain that a lady might have called about ten or half-past without your having seen her?'

'I was out on a herrant at that time, so I'm sure she might, for missus wouldn't mind to tell me if I wasn't to get rooms ready for her.'

'And what would your mistress do in the case of not being able to supply a lady with rooms?'

'I should think she would send round to Mrs.--well-I don't remember right the name.'

'Do you know the address?'

'I know it's behind the station, one of those streets where-nay-but I don't think I could direct you right.'

'Then what shall I do?'

'Missus will be in shortly. If you'll take a seat in the 'all-I can't ask you into any other room, they're all occupied.'

There was nothing to do but to accept, and after having asked when the landlady might be expected in, and receiving the inevitable 'Really couldn't say for certain, sir, but I don't think she'll be long,' he sat down in a chair, weary and footsore; there were times when struck by a sudden thought he would make a movement as if to start from his seat; but instantly remembering his own powerlessness, he would slip back into his attitude of heavy fatigue. In the dining-room the clock ticked, and he listened to the passing of the minutes, tortured by the idea that his wife was suffering, dying, and that he was not near to help, to assist, to assuage. He forgot that they were penniless, homeless; all was lost in a boundless pity, and he listened to the footsteps growing sharper as they approached, and duller as they went. At last the sound of the latchkey was heard in the lock, and Dick started to his feet. It was the landlady.

'Have you seen my wife?'

'Yes, sir,' exclaimed the astonished woman; 'she was here this morning; all our rooms are let, so I couldn't--'

'Where has she gone to, do you know?'

'Well, sir, I was going to say, she asked me if I could recommend her to some quiet place, and I sent her to Mrs. Hurley's.'

'And will you give me Mrs. Hurley's address?'

'Yes, sir, certainly; but if I may make so bold, you're looking very tired-may I offer you a glass of beer? And Mrs. Lennox is looking very bad too, she is-'

'I'm much obliged, but I've no time; if you'd give me the address….'

No sooner were the words spoken than, forgetful of his aching feet, Dick rushed away, and dodging the passers-by he ran until he laid hands on the knocker and bell in question.

'Is Mrs. Lennox staying here?' he asked of the lady who opened the door.

'There was a lady of that name who inquired for rooms here this morning.'

'And isn't she here? Why didn't she take the rooms?'

'Well, sir, she said she was expecting to be confined, and I didn't care to have illness in my house.'

'You don't mean to tell me that you turned her out? Oh, you atrocious-! If you were a man….'

Overpowered with rage he stopped for words, and the woman, fearing he would strike her, strove to shut the door. But Dick, with his thick leg, prevented her, and at this moment they were joined by the maid, who screamed over her mistress's shoulder:

'The lady said she would come round here in a couple o' hours' time to ask for you, and I advised her to try for rooms at No. 28 in this street. You'll find her there.'

This was enough for Dick, and loosing his hold on the door he made off; streets, carriages, passers-by, whirled before his eyes.

'Is Mrs. Lennox here?' he asked so roughly when the door was opened, that the maid regretted having said yes as soon as the word had passed her lips.

'On what floor?'

'The first, sir; but you'd better let me go up first. Mrs. Lennox is not very well; she's expecting her husband.'

'I'm her husband.'

And on that Dick rushed at the staircase. A few strides brought him on to the first landing; but a sudden disappointment seized him-the sitting-room was empty. Thinking instantly of the bedroom, he flung open the door, and there he saw Kate sitting on the edge of the bed rocking herself to and fro. She rose to her feet and the expression of weary pain was changed to one of joy as she fell into Dick's arms.

'I thought you'd never come, and they would take me in nowhere.'

'Yes, my darling, I know all about it; I know all.'

He laid kisses on the rich black-blue hair and the pale tired face; he felt light hands resting on him; she felt strong arms clasped about her, and each soul seemed to be but the reflection of the other, just as the sky and the sea are when the sun is at its meridian.

Then, at this brief but ineffable moment of spiritual unison faded words returned to them, and Kate spoke of all she had suffered. She whispered the story she had told the landlady, and how she had ordered a big dinner, and everything of the best, so that they might not be suspected of being hard up. Dick approved of these arrangements; but just as he smacked his lips, a foretaste of the leg of mutton in his mouth, Kate uttered a sort of low cry, and turning pale, pressed her hands to her side. A sharp pain had suddenly run through her, and as quickly died away; but a few minutes after this was succeeded by another, which lasted longer and gripped her more acutely. Supporting her tenderly he helped her across the room and laid her on the bed. There she seemed to experience some relief; but very soon she was again seized by the most acute pangs. It seemed to her that she was bound about with a buckler of iron, and frightened Dick rang for the landlady. The worthy woman saw at a glance what was happening, and sent him off, weary as he was, to fetch a doctor and the needful assistance.

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