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   Chapter 22 No.22

A Mummer's Wife By George Moore Characters: 14790

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


The doctor and nurse arrived almost simultaneously and passed into the sick-room, bidding Dick, who came running upstairs a moment after, be of good cheer. The mummer took his hat from his head and stood for a moment staring vacantly at the bedroom door, as if striving to read there the secrets of life, birth, and death. Then he remembered how tired he was, and with a large movement of fatigue he sat down on the sofa. A gloomy yellow sky filled the room with an oppressive and mournful twilight, and to relieve his aching feet Dick had kicked off his shoes, and with his folded arms pressed against his stomach he sat hour after hour, too hungry to sleep, listening to the low moaning that came through the chinks of the door. He appeared to be totally forgotten; voices whispered on the staircase, people passed hurriedly through the sitting-room, but none asked him if he wanted anything: no one even noticed him, and when the landlady lighted the gas she uttered a cry of astonishment, as if she had discovered an intruder in the room.

'Oh, lawks! Mr. Lennox, we'd forgotten all about you, and you sittin' there so quiet. But your wife is getting on nice; she has just had a cup of beef-tea: in about another couple of hours it will be all over.'

'Is she suffering much?'

'Well, sir, yes, I wouldn't consider it an easy confinement; but I think it will be all right: you'll see your wife and child alive and well to-morrow morning.'

Dick could not help doubting the truth of the woman's statement unless she came to his assistance with food. Although almost starving, he was afraid to call for dinner lest she should ask him for some money in advance, but at that moment a cramp seized him, and turning pale he had to lean over the table to suppress the moan which rose to his lips.

'What's the matter, sir? You look quite ill,' the woman asked.

'Oh, 'twas only a sudden pain,' Dick said, making an effort to recover himself. 'I've eaten nothing all day-have had no time, you know.'

'Then we shall have you laid up as well as your wife, and there's the leg of mutton she ordered stewing away all these hours. I'm afraid you won't be able to eat it?'

Absurd as the question appeared to him, Dick answered adroitly:

'It will do very well, if you'll bring it up as soon as you can; I may have to go out.'

This was intended as a ruse to deceive the landlady, for so tired was he that had it been to save Kate's life he did not think he would have walked downstairs. He could think of nothing but putting something into his stomach, and hard and dry as the mutton was it seemed to him the most delicious thing he had ever tasted. His pain melted away with the first mouthful, and the glass of beer ran through and warmed his entire system. Down the great throat the victuals disappeared as if by magic, and the unceasing cry that seemed now to fill the entire house passed almost unheeded.

For a moment he would listen pityingly, and then like an animal return to his food. He cut slice after slice from the joint, and as his hunger seemed to grow upon him he thought he could finish it, and even longed to take the bone in his hand and pick it with his teeth; but he reasoned with himself; it would not do to let the landlady suspect they had no money, and as he gazed at the last potato, which he was afraid to eat, he considered what he should say in apology for his appetite; but as he sought for a nice phrase, something pleasantly facetious, he remembered that he would have to find money and at once; he must have some no later than to-morrow. There were a thousand things that would have to be paid for-the baby's clothes, the cradle, the-he tried to think of what was generally wanted under such circumstances, but the cries in the next room, which had gradually swelled into shrieks, appalled him, and involuntarily the thought struck him that there might be a funeral to pay for as well as a birth.

At that moment the bell tinkled, and the maid came running up. She carried a jug of hot water and flannels in her hand, and pushing past him she declared that she hadn't a moment. The door of the bedroom was ajar; a fire burned, candles flared on the mantelpiece, a basin stood on the floor, and at times nothing was heard but a long moan, mingling with the murmuring voices of the doctor and nurse.

The room seemed like a sanctuary in which some mysterious rite was being performed. But suddenly the silence was broken by shrieks so passionate and acute that all the earlier ones were only remembered as feeble lamentations.

Dick raised his big face from his hands, the movement threw back the mass of frizzly hair, and in the intensity of this emotion he looked like a lion.

'Was this life,' he asked himself, 'or death? And by whose order was a human creature tortured thus cruelly?' But the idea of God did not arrest his attention, and his thoughts fixing themselves on the child, he asked himself, what was this new life to him?

'Oh, I never will again! Oh, how I hate him-I could kill him! I'll never love him, never no more.'

The cry touched the fat mummer through all the years of gross sensuality, through the indigestion of his big dinner, and, struck by the sense of her words, he shuddered, remembering that it was he who was the cause of this outrageous suffering and not the innocent child. Was it possible, he asked himself, that she would never love him again? He didn't know. Was it possible that he was culpable? Strange notions respecting the origin, the scheme, the design of the universe, flashed in dim chiaro-oscuro through his thoughts, and for a full hour Dick pondered, philosopher-like, on the remote causes and the distant finalities of men and things.

An hour full of moans and cries of suffering, then a great silence came, and the whole house seemed to sigh with a sense of relief.

'The baby must be born,' he said; and immediately after a little thin cry was heard, and in his heart it was prolonged like a note of gladness, and his thoughts became paternal.

He wondered if it were a girl or a boy; he fancied he'd like a girl best. If she were pretty, and had a bit of a voice, he'd be able to push her to the front, whereas with a boy it would be more difficult. Relinquishing his dreams at this point, Dick listened to the silence. He did not dare to knock at the door, but the murmur of satisfied voices assured him that all was right. Still it was very odd that they did not come out and announce the result to him. Did he count for nobody? Did they fancy that it was nothing to him if his wife and child were dead or alive? The idea of being thus completely unconsidered in an affair of such deep concern irritated him, and he walked towards the sofa to brood over his wrongs. Should he, or should he not, knock at the door? At last he decided that he should, and, after a timid rap, tried the handle. He was immediately confronted by the nurse.

'It's all right, sir; you shall come in in a moment when the baby is washed.'

'Yes, but I want to know how my wife is.'

'She's doing very well, sir; you shall see her presently.'

The door was then gently but firmly closed, and Dick was kept waiting, and almost collapsing he staggered into the room when the nurse called for him to come in.

Kate lay amid the sheets pale and inert, her beautiful black hair making an ink st

ain on the pillows. She stretched an exhausted hand to him, and looked at him earnestly and affectionately. To both of them their lives seemed completed.

'Oh, my darling, my darling!' he murmured; and his heart melted with happiness at the faint pressure of fingers which he held within his. The nurse standing by him held something red wrapped up in flannels. He scarcely noticed it until he heard Kate say:

'It's a little girl. Kiss it, dear.'

He awkwardly touched with his lips the tiny whining mass of flesh the nurse held forward, feeling, without knowing why, ashamed of himself.

'Hearing that madam was taken all unexpected, I brought these flannels with me,' said the large woman with the long-tailed cap; 'but to-morrow I can recommend you, if you like, sir, to a shop where you can get everything required.'

This speech brought Dick with a cruel jerk to the brink of the atrocious situation in which he had so unexpectedly found himself. To-morrow he would have to find money, and a great deal too. How he was going to do it he did not know, but money would have to be found.

'Yes, yes, I'll see to all that to-morrow,' he said, awakening from his lethargy, like a jaded horse touched in some new place by the spur, 'but now I'm so tired I can scarcely speak.'

'That's so,' said the landlady. 'These walking tours is dreadful. He's been over from Rochdale to-day, not counting the runnin' about he did after his wife. You know they refused to take her in at number fifteen. But, sir, I don't well know how we shall manage. I don't see how I'm to offer you a bed. The best I can do for you is to make you up something on the sofa in the parlour.'

'Oh, the sofa will do very well. I think I could sleep on the tiles; so good-night, dear,' he said as he leaned over and kissed his wife; 'I'm sorry to leave you so soon.'

'It isn't a bit too soon,' said the doctor. 'She must lie still and not talk.'

On this Dick was led away. The nurse and doctor consulted by the bed where the woman would lie for days, too weak even to dream, while the man went off into the Manchester crowd to search for food. Beyond the bare idea of 'going down to see what they were doing at the theatre,' he had no plans. The scavenger dog that prowls about the gutter in search of offal could not have less. But he felt sure that something would turn up; he was certain to meet someone to whom he could sell a piano or for whom he could build a theatre. He never made plans. There was no use in making plans; they were always upset by an accident. Far better, he thought, to trust to the inspiration of the moment; and when he awoke in the morning, heavy with sleep, he felt no trepidation, no fear beyond that of how he should get his sore feet into his shoes. It was only with a series of groans and curses that he succeeded in doing this, and the limps by which he proceeded down the street were painful to watch. At the stage-door of the Theatre Royal a conciliatory tone of voice was mechanically assumed as he asked the porter if Mr. Jackson was in. But before the official could answer, Dick caught sight of Mr. Jackson coming along the passage.

'How do you do, old man? Haven't seen you for a long time.'

'What, you, Dick, in Manchester? Come and have a drink, old man. Very glad to see you. Stopping long here?'

'Well, I'm not quite decided. My wife was confined, you know, last night.'

'What! you a father, Dick?'

Mr. Jackson leered, poked him in the ribs, and commenced a list of anecdotes. To these Dick had to listen, and in the hopes of catching his friend in an unwary moment of good-humour, he laughed heartily at all the best points. But digressive as conversation is in which women are concerned, sooner or later a reference is made to the cost and the worth, and at last Mr. Jackson was incautious enough to say:

'Very expensive those affairs are, to be sure.'

This was the chance that Dick was waiting for, and immediately buttonholing his friend, he said:

'You're quite right, they are: and to tell you the truth, old man, I'm in the most devilish awkward position I ever was in my life. You heard about the breaking up of Morton and Cox's company? Well, that left me stranded.'

At the first words gaiety disappeared from Mr. Jackson's face, and during Dick's narrative of the tour in Lancashire he made many ineffectual wriggles to get away. Dick judged from these well-known indications that to borrow money might be attended with failure, and after a pathetic description of his poverty he concluded with:

'So now, my dear fellow, you must find something for me to do. It does not matter what-something temporary until I can find something better, you know.'

It was difficult to resist this appeal, and after a moment's reflection Mr.

Jackson said:

'Well, you know we're all made up here. There's a small part in the new drama to be produced next week; I wouldn't like to offer it as it is, but I might get the author to write it up.'

'It will do first rate. I'm sure to be able to make something of it. What's the screw?'

'That's just the point. We can't afford to pay much for it; our salary list is too big as it is.'

'What did you intend giving for it?'

'Well, we meant to give it to a super, but for you I can have it written up. What do you say to two-ten?'

Dick thought it would be judicious to pause, and after a short silence he said:

'I've had, as you know, bigger things to do; but I'm awfully obliged to you, old pal. You're doing me a good turn that I shan't forget; we can consider the matter as settled.'

This was a stroke of luck, and Dick congratulated himself warmly, until he remembered that £2 10s. at the end of next week did not put a farthing into his present pocket. Money he would have to find that day, how he did not know. He called upon everybody he had ever heard of; he visited all the theatres and ball-rooms, drank interminable drinks, listened to endless stories, and when questioned as to what he was doing himself, grew delightfully mendacious, and, upon the slight basis of his engagement for the new drama at the Royal, constructed a fabulous scheme for the production of new pieces. In this way the afternoon went by, and he was beginning to give up hopes of turning over any money that day, when he met a dramatic author. After the usual salutations-'How do you do, old boy? How's business?' etc.-had been exchanged, the young man said:

'Had a bit of luck; just sold my piece-you know the drama I read you, the one in which the mother saves her child from the burning house?'

'How much did you get?'

'Seventy-five pound down, and two pounds a night.'

At the idea of so much money Dick's eyes glistened, and he immediately proceeded to unfold a scheme he had been meditating for some time back for the building of a new theatre. The author listened attentively, and after having dangled about the lamp-post for half an hour, they mutually agreed to eat a bit of dinner together and afterwards go home and read another new piece that was, so said the fortunate author, a clinker. No better excuse than his wife's confinement could be found for fixing the meeting hour at the young man's lodging, and in the enthusiasm which the reading of the acts engendered, it was easy for Dick to ask for, and difficult for his friend to refuse, a cheque for £15.

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