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   Chapter 23 No.23

A Mummer's Wife By George Moore Characters: 15751

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


In about a week Kate was sufficiently restored to sit up in bed. Her very weakness and lassitude were a source of happiness; for, after long months of turmoil and racket, it was pleasant to lie in the covertures, and suffer her thoughts to rise out of unconsciousness or sink back into it without an effort. And these twilight trances flowed imperceptibly into another period, when with coming strength a feverish love awoke in her for the little baby girl who lay sleeping by her side. And for hours in the reposing obscurity of the drawn curtains mother and child would remain hushed in one long warm embrace. To see, to feel, this little life moving against her side was enough. She didn't look into the future, nor did she think of what fate the years held in store for her daughter, but content, lost in emotive contemplation, she watched the blind movements of hands and the vague staring of blue eyes. This puling pulp that was more intimately and intensely herself than herself developed strange yearnings in her, and she often trembled with pride in being the instrument through which so much mystery was worked; to talk to herself of the dark dawn of creation, and of the day sweet with maternal love that lay beyond, was a great source of joy; to hear the large, hobbling woman tell of the different babies she had successfully started that year on their worldly pilgrimage never seemed to weary her. She interested herself in each special case, and when the nurse told her she must talk no more she lay back to dream of the great boy with the black eyes who had so nearly been the death of his little flaxen haired mother.

She felt great interest in this infant, who, if he went on growing at the present rate, it was prophesied would be in twenty years' time the biggest man in Manchester. But the nurse admitted that all the children were not so strong and healthy. Indeed, it was only last week that a little baby she had brought into the world perfectly safely had died within a few days of its birth, for no cause that anyone could discover; it had wilted and passed away like a flower. The tears rolled down Kate's cheeks as she listened, and she pressed her own against her breast and insisted on suckling her infant although expressly forbidden to do so by the doctor.

These days were the best of her life. She felt more at peace with the world, she placed more confidence in her husband than she had ever done before; and when he came in of an afternoon and sat by her side and talked of herself and of their little baby, softened in all the intimate fibres of her sex, she laid her hand in his, and sighed for sheer joy. The purpose of her life seemed now to show a definite sign of accomplishment.

The only drawback to their happiness was their poverty. The fifteen pounds of borrowed money had gone through their hands like water, and God knows what would have become of them if Dick had not been fortunate to make another tenner by looking after a piece given at a morning performance. What with the doctor's bills, the nurse's wages, the baby's clothes, they were for ever breaking into their last sovereign. Dick spoke of their difficulties with reluctance, not wishing to distress her, but he felt he must rouse her out of the apathy into which she had fallen, and he begged of her to take the next engagement he could find for her. It seemed to him that she was now quite well, but when he pressed for a promise the first time she answered: 'Yes, Dick, I should like to get to work again,' but when he came to her with a proposal of work, she was quick to find excuses. The baby was foremost among them; she did not like to put the child out to nurse. 'If the child were to die, I should never forgive myself,' she would say. 'Don't ask me, Dick, don't ask me.'

'But, Kate, we cannot go on living here on nothing. We owe the landlady for three weeks.'

At these words Kate would burst into tears, and when he succeeded in consoling her she would remind him that if she went back to work before she was quite well she might be laid up for a long time, which would be much worse than the loss of a miserable three or four pounds a week. To convince Dick completely she would remind him that as she had been playing leading parts it would not be wise to accept the first thing she could get. 'If one lets oneself down, Dick, in the profession, it's difficult to get up again.'

'Well, dear,' Dick would answer, 'I must try and find something to do myself. You shall not be asked again to go back to work until you feel like it. When you come to tell me that you're tired of staying at home.

'Don't speak like that, Dick, for it seems as if you were laying blame upon me, and I'm not to blame. You will be able to judge for yourself when I'm fit to go back to work, and one of these days you will come with the news of a leading part.'

Accompanying him to the door she said she would like to return to the stage in a leading part, but not in any of the parts she had already played in, but in something new. These objections and excuses brought a cloud into Dick's face which she did not notice, but when he had gone she would begin to think of his kindness towards her and of what she could do to reward him. His shirts wanted mending, and as soon as they were mended she made hoods and shoes for the baby.

In many little ways the old life that she thought she had left behind in Hanley began to reappear, and when Dick came into the room and found her reading a novel by the fire she reminded him of Ralph's wife rather than of his own.

While she was touring in the country she had given up reading without being aware that she had done so. She had once bought a copy of the Family Herald, hoping that it would help away the time on the long railway journey, but having herself come into a life of passion, energy and infinite variety, she could not follow with any interest the story of three young ladies in reduced circumstances who had started a dressmaking business and who were destined clearly to marry the men they loved and who loved them and who would continue to love them long after the silver threads had appeared among the gold. But now in the long lonely days spent with her baby in the lodging (Dick went away early in the morning and sometimes did not return till twelve o'clock at night), a story in a copy of The Family Herald lent to her by the landlady, on the whole a very kind and patient soul, took hold of Kate's imagination, and when she raised her eyes a tear of joy fell upon the page, and in the effusion of these sensations she would take her little girl and press it almost wildly to her breast.

Before leaving, the nurse had given Kate many directions. The baby was to have its bath in the morning; to be kept thoroughly clean, and to be given the bottle at certain times during the day and night. Kate was devoted to her child, but the attention she gave it was unsustained, a desultory attention. Sometimes she put too much water in the milk, sometimes too little.

The christening had awakened in her many forgotten emotions, and now that she was an honest married woman, she did not see why she should not resume her old church-going ways. The story she was reading was full of allusions to the vanity of this world and the durability of the next; and her feet on the fender, penetrated with the dreamy warmth of the fire, she abandoned herself to the seduction of her reveries. Everything conspired against her. Being still very weak the doctor had ordered her to keep up her strength with stimulants; a table-spoonful of brandy and water taken now and then was what was required. This was the ordinance, but the drinks in the dressing-rooms had taught her the comforts of such medicines, and during the day several glasses were consumed. Without getting absolutely drunk, she ra

pidly sank into sensations of numbness, in which all distinctions were blurred, and thoughts trickled and slipped away like the soothing singing of a brook. It was like an amorous tickling, and as her dreams balanced between a tender declaration of love and the austere language of the Testament, the crying of the sick child was unheeded.

Once Kate did not hear it for hours; she did not know she had forgotten to warm its milk, and that the poor little thing was shivering with cold pain. And when at last she awoke, and went over to the cot trying to collect her drink-laden thoughts, the little legs were drawn up, the face was like ivory, and a long thin wail issued from the colourless lips. Alarmed, Kate called for the landlady, who, after feeling the bottle, advised that the milk should be warmed. When this was done the child took a little and appeared relieved.

Shortly after a bell was heard ringing, and the landlady said:

'I think it's your husband, ma'am.'

It was usual for Dick, when he came in at night, to tell what Kate termed 'the news.' It amused her to hear what had been done at the theatre, what fresh companies had come to town. On this occasion it surprised him that she took so little interest in the conversation, and after hazarding a few remarks, he said:

'But what's the matter, dear? Aren't you well?'

'Oh yes, I'm quite well,' Kate answered stolidly.

'Well, what's the matter? You don't speak.'

'I'm tired, that's all.'

'And how's the baby?'

'I think she's asleep; don't wake her.'

But Dick went over, and holding a candle in one hand he looked long and anxiously at his child.

'I'm afraid the little thing is not well; she's fidgeting, and is as restless as possible.'

'I wish you'd leave her alone; if she awakes, it's I who will have the trouble of her, not you. It's very unkind of you.'

Dick looked at his wife and said nothing; but as she continued to speak, the evidences of drink became so unmistakable that he said, trying not to offend her:

'I'm afraid you've been drinking a little too much of the brandy the doctor ordered you.'

At this accusation, Kate drew herself up and angrily denied having touched a drop of anything that day.

'How dare you accuse me of being drunk? You ought to respect me more.'

'Drunk, Kate? I never said you were drunk, but I thought you might have taken an overdose.'

'I suppose you'll believe me when I tell you that I've not had a teaspoonful of anything.'

'Of course I believe you, dear,' said Dick, who did not like to think that Kate was telling him a deliberate lie, and to avoid further discussion he suggested bed. Kate did not answer him, and he heard her trying to get undressed, and wondering at her clumsiness he asked himself if he should propose to unlace her stays for her. But he was afraid of irritating her, and thought it would be better to leave her alone to undo the knot as best she could. She tugged at the laces furiously, and thinking she might break them and accuse him of unwillingness to come to her assistance, he said, 'Shall I--'

But she cut him short. 'Let me alone, let me alone!' she cried, and Dick kicked off his shoes.

'How can you be so unkind, or is it that you've no thought for that poor sick child?' she said; and Dick answered:

'I assure you, my dear, it couldn't be helped; the shoe slipped off unexpectedly,' and as if the world had set its face against her, Kate burst into tears. At first Dick tried to console her, but seeing that this was hopeless, he turned his face to the wall and went to sleep.

She had not drawn the curtains of the window, and the outlines of the room showing through the blue dusk frightened her, so ghostlike did they appear. The cradle stood under the window, the child's face just visible on the pallor of the pillow. 'Baby is asleep,' she said; 'that's a good sign,' and watched the cradle, trying to remember how long it was since baby had had her bottle; and while wondering if she could trust herself to wake when baby cried she began to notice that the room was becoming lighter. 'It cannot be the dawn,' she thought; 'the dawn is hours away; we're in December. Besides, the dawn is grey, and the light is green, a sort of pantomime light,' she said. It seemed to her very like a fairy tale. The giant snoring, and her baby stirring in her cradle with the limelight upon her, or was she dreaming? It might be a dream out of which she could not rouse herself. But the noise she heard was Dick's breathing, and she wished that Ralph would breathe more easily. Ralph, Ralph! No, she was with Dick. Dick, not Ralph, was her husband. It was with a great effort that she roused herself. 'It was only a dream' she murmured. 'But baby is crying. Her cry is so faint,' she said; and, slinging her legs over the side of the bed, she tried to find her dressing-gown, but could not remember where she had laid it 'Baby wants her bottle,' she said, and sought for the matches vainly at first, but at last she found them, and lighted a spirit lamp. 'One must get the water warmed, cold milk would kill her;' and while the water was heating she walked up and down the room rocking her baby, talking to her, striving to quiet her; and when she thought the water was warm she tried to prepare baby's milk as the doctor had ordered it. Her hope was that she had succeeded in mixing the milk and water in right proportions, for the last time she had given the baby her bottle she was afraid the water was not warm enough. Perhaps that was why baby was crying, or it might be merely a little wind that was troubling her. She held the baby upright, hoping that the pain would pass away with a change of position, and she walked up and down the room rocking the child in her arms and crooning to her for fully half an hour. At last the child ceased to wail, and she laid her in her cradle and sat watching, thinking that if she were to lose her baby she must go mad…. She had lost Dick's love, and if the baby were taken away there would be nothing left for her to live for. 'Nothing left for me to live for,' she repeated again and again, till the cold winter's night striking through her nightgown reminded her that she was risking her life, which she had no right to do, for baby needed her. 'Who would look after poor baby if I were taken away?' she asked, and shaking with cold, was about to crawl into bed; but on laying her knee on the bedside she remembered that a little spirit often saved a human life; and going to the chest of drawers took out the bottle she had hidden from Dick and filled a glass.

The spirit diffused a grateful warmth through her, and she drank a second glass slowly, thinking of her child and husband, and how good she intended to be to both of them, until ideas became broken, and she tumbled into bed, awaking Dick, who was soon asleep again, with Kate by his side watching a rim of light rising above a dark chimney stack and wondering what new shows must be preparing. Already the rim of light had become a crescent, and before her eyes closed in sleep the full moon looked down through the window into the cradle, waking the sleeping child. But her cries were too weak; her mother lay in sleep beyond reach of her wails, heart-breaking though they were. The little blankets were cast aside, and the struggle between life and death began: soft roundnesses fell into distortions; chubby knees were wrenched to and fro, muscles seemed to be torn, and a few minutes later little Kate, who had known of this world but a ray of moonlight, died-a glimpse of the moon was all that had been granted to her. After watching for an hour or more, the moon moved up the skies; and in Kate's dream the moon was the great yellow witch in the pantomime, who, before striding her broomstick, cries back: 'Thou art mine only, for ever and for ever!'

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