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   Chapter 29 No.29

A Mummer's Wife By George Moore Characters: 24000

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


The next few days passed like dreams. Kate's soul, tense with the longing for reconciliation, floated at ease over the sordid miseries that lay within and without her, and enraptured with expectation, she lived in a beautiful paradise of hope.

So certain did she feel of being able to cross out the last few years of her life, that her mind was scarcely clouded by a doubt of the possibility of his declining to forgive her-that he might even refuse to see her. The old days seemed charming to her, and looking back, even she seemed to have been perfect then. There her life appeared to have begun. She never thought of Hanley now. Ralph and Mrs. Ede were like dim shadows that had no concern in her existence. The potteries and the hills were as the recollections of childhood, dim and unimportant. The footlights and the applause of audiences were also dying echoes in her ears. Her life for the moment was concentrated in a loving memory of a Lancashire seashore and a rose-coloured room, where she used to sit on the knees of the man she adored. The languors and the mental weakness of convalescence were conducive to this state of mental exaltation. She loved him better than anyone else could love him; she would never touch brandy again. He would take her back, and they would live as the lovers did in all the novels she had ever read. These illusions filled Kate's mind like a scarf of white mist hanging around the face of a radiant morning, and as she lay back amid the pillows, or sat dreaming by the fireside in the long evenings that were no longer lonely to her, she formed plans, and considered how she should plead to Dick in this much-desired interview. During this period dozens of letters were written and destroyed, and it was not until the time arrived for her to go to the theatre to see him that she could decide upon what she could write. Then hastily she scribbled a note, but her hand trembled so much that before she had said half what she intended the paper was covered with blotched and blurred lines.

'It won't do to let him think I'm drunk again,' she said to herself, as she threw aside what she had written and read over one of her previous efforts. It ran as follows:

'MY DARLING DICK,-

'You will, I am sure, be sorry to hear that I have been very ill. I am now, however, much better; indeed, I may say quite recovered. During my illness I have been thinking over our quarrels, and I now see how badly, how wickedly, I have behaved to you on many occasions. I do not know, and I scarcely dared to hope, that you will ever forgive me, but I trust that you will not refuse to see me for a few minutes. I have not, I assure you, tasted spirits for some weeks, so you need not fear I will kick up a row. I will promise to be very quiet. I will not reproach you, nor get excited, nor raise my voice. I shall be very good, and will not detain you but for a very short time. You will not, you cannot, oh, my darling! deny me this one little request-to see you again, although only for a few minutes.

'Your affectionate wife,

'KATE'

Compared with the fervid thoughts of her brain, these words appeared to her weak and poor, but feeling that for the moment, at least, she could not add to their intensity, she set out on her walk, hoping to find her husband at the theatre.

It was about eight o'clock in the evening. A light, grey fog hung over the background of the streets, and the line of the housetops was almost lost in the morose shadows that fell from a soot-coloured sky. Here and there a chimney-stack or the sharp spire of a church tore the muslin-like curtains of descending mist; and vague as the mist were her thoughts. The streets twisted, wriggling their luminous way through slime and gloom, whilst at every turning the broad, flaring windows of the public-houses marked the English highway. But Kate paid no attention to the red-lettered temptations. Docile and hopeful as a tired animal thinking of its stable, she walked through the dark crowd that pressed upon her, nor did she even notice when she was jostled, but went on, a heedless nondescript-a something in a black shawl and a quasi-respectable bonnet, a slippery stepping-stone between the low women who whispered and the workwoman who hurried home with the tin of evening beer in her hand. Like one held and guided by the power of a dream, she lost consciousness of all that was not of it. Thoughts of how Dick would receive her and forgive her were folded, entangled and broken within narrow limits of time; half an hour passed like a minute, and she found herself at the stage-door of the theatre. Drawing the letter from her pocket, she said to the hall-keeper:

'Will you kindly give Mr. Lennox this letter? Has he arrived yet?'

'Yes, but he's busy for the moment. But,' the man added, as he examined Kate's features narrowly, 'you'll excuse me, I made a mistake; Mr. Lennox isn't in the theatre.'

At that moment the swinging door was thrust open, and the call-boy screamed:

'Mr. Lennox says you're not to let Miss Thomas pass to-night, and if there are any letters for him I'm to take them in.'

'Here's one; will you give it to Mr. Lennox?' said Kate, eagerly thrusting forward her note. 'Say that I'm waiting for an answer.'

The stage-door keeper tried to interpose, but before he could explain himself the boy had rushed away.

'All letters should be given to me,' he growled as he turned away to argue with Miss Thomas, who had just arrived. In a few minutes the call-boy came back.

'Will you please step this way,' he said to Kate.

'No, you shan't,' cried the hall-keeper; 'if you try any nonsense with me I shall send round for a policeman.'

Kate started back frightened, thinking these words were addressed to her, but a glance showed her that she was mistaken.

'Oh! how dare you talk to me like that? You're an unsophisticated beast!' cried Miss Thomas.

'Pass under my arm, ma'am,' said the hall-keeper; 'I don't want this one to get through.' And amid a storm of violent words and the strains of distant music Kate went up a narrow staircase that creaked under the weight of a group of girls in strange dresses. When she got past them she saw Dick at the door of his room waiting for her. The table was covered with letters, the walls with bills announcing, 'a great success.'

He took her hand and placed her in a chair, and at first it seemed doubtful who would break an awkward and irritating silence. At last Dick said:

'I'm sorry to hear, Kate, that you've been ill; you're looking well now.'

'Yes, I'm better now,' she replied drearily; 'but perhaps if I'd died it would have been as well, for you can never love me again.'

'You know, my dear,' he said, equivocating, 'that we didn't get on well together.'

'Oh, Dick! I know it. You were very good to me, and I made your life wretched on account of my jealousy; but I couldn't help it, for I loved you better than a woman ever loved a man. I cannot tell you, I cannot find words to express how much I love you; you're everything to me. I lived for your love; I'm dying of it. Yes, Dick, I'm dying for love of you; I feel it here; it devours me like a fire, and what is so strange is, that nothing seems real to me except you. I never think of anything but of things that concern you. Anything that ever belonged to you I treasure up as a relic. You know the chaplet of pearls I used to wear when we played The Lovers Knot. Well, I have them still, although all else has gone from me. The string was broken once or twice, and some of the pearls were lost, but I threaded them again, and it still goes round my neck. I was looking at them the other day, and it made me very sad, for it made me think of the happy days-ah, the very happy days!-we have had together before I took to --. But I won't speak of that. I've cured myself. Yes, I assure you, Dick, I've cured myself; and it is for that I've come to talk to you. Were I not sure that I would never touch brandy again I would not ask you to take me back, but I'd sooner die than do what I have done, for I know that I never will. Can you-will you-my own darling Dick, give me another trial?'

The victory hung in the balance, but at that moment a superb girl, in all the splendour of long green tights, and resplendent with breastplate and spear, flung open the door.

'Look here, Dick,' she began, but seeing Kate, she stopped short, and stammered out an apology.

'I shall be down on the stage in a minute, dear,' he said, rising from his chair. The door was shut, and they were again alone; but Kate felt that chance had gone against her. The interruption had, with a sudden shock, killed the emotions she had succeeded in awakening, and had supplied Dick with an answer that would lead him, by a way after his own heart, straight out of his difficulty.

'My dear,' he said, rising from his chair, 'I'm glad you've given up the-you know what-for, between you and me, that was the cause of all our trouble; but, candidly speaking, I don't think it would be advisable for us to live together, at least for the present, and I'll tell you why. I know that you love me very much, but, as you said yourself just now, it's your jealousy and the drink together that excites you, and leads up to those terrible rows. Now, the best plan would be for us to live apart, let us say for six months or so, until you've entirely got over your little weakness, you know; and then-why, then we'll be as happy as we used to be at Blackpool in the dear old times long ago.'

'Oh, Dick! don't say that I must wait six months; I might be dead before then. But you're not speaking the truth to me. You were just going to say that I might come back to you when the horrid girl came in. I know. Yes, I believe there's something between you.'

'Now, Kate, remember your promise not to kick up a row. I consented to see you because you said you wouldn't be violent. Here's your letter.'

'I'm not going to be violent, Dick; but six months seems such a long time.'

'It won't be as long passing as you think. And now I must run away; they're waiting for me on the stage. Have you seen the piece? Would you like to go in front?'

'No, not to-night, Dick; I feel too sad. But won't you kiss me before I go?'

Dick bent his face and kissed her; but there was a chill in the kiss that went to her heart, and she felt that his lips would never touch hers again. But she had no protest to make, and almost in silence she allowed herself to be shown out of the theatre. When she got into the mist she shivered a little, and drew her thin shawl tighter about her thin shoulders, and, with one of the choruses still ringing in her ears, she walked in the direction of the Strand. Somehow her sorrow did not seem too great for her to bear. The interview had passed neither as badly nor as well as had been expected, and thinking of the six months of probation that lay before her, but without being in the least able to realize their meaning, she walked dreaming through the sloppy, fog-smelling streets. The lamps were now but like furred patches of yellow laid on a dead grey background, and a mud-bespattered crowd rolled in and out of the darkness. The roofs overhead were engulfed in the soot-coloured sky that seemed to be descending on the heads of the passengers. Men passed carrying parcels; the white necktie of a theatre-goer was caught sight of. From Lambeth, from Islington, from Pimlico, from all the dark corners where it had been lurking in the daytime, prostitution at the fading of the light, had descended on the town-portly matrons, very respectable in brown silk dresses and veils, stood in the corners of alleys and dingy courts, scorned by the younger generation; young girls of fifteen and sixteen going by in couples with wisps of dyed hair hanging about their shoulders, advertisements of their age; the elder taking the responsibility of choosing; Germans in long ulsters trafficked in gut

tural intonations; policemen on their beats could have looked less concerned. The English hung round the public-houses, enviously watching the arched insteps of the Frenchwomen tripping by. Smiles there were plenty, but the fog was so thick that even the Parisians lost their native levity and wished themselves back in Paris.

At the crossing of Wellington Street she stumbled against a small man who leaned against a doorway coughing violently. They stared at each other in profound astonishment, and then Kate said in a pained and broken voice:

'Oh, Ralph! is it you?'

'Yes, indeed it is. But to think of meeting you here in London!'

They had, for the second, in a sort of way, forgotten that they had once been man and wife, and after a pause Kate said:

'But that's just what I was thinking. What are you doing in London?'

Ralph was about to answer when he was cut short by a fit of coughing. His head sank into his chest, and his little body was shaken until it seemed as if it were going to break to pieces like a bundle of sticks. Kate looked at him pityingly, and passing unconsciously over the dividing years just as she might have done when they kept shop together in Hanley, she said:

'Oh! you know you shouldn't stop out in such weather as this: you'll be breathless to-morrow.'

'Oh no, I shan't; I've got a new remedy. But I've lost my way; that's the reason why I'm so late.'

'Perhaps I can tell you. Where are you staying?'

'In an hotel in Bedford Street, near Covent Garden.'

'Well, then, this is your way; you've come too far.'

And passing again into the jostling crowd they walked on in silence side by side. A slanting cloud of fog had drifted from the river down into the street, creating a shivering and terrifying darkness. The cabs moved at walking pace, the huge omnibuses stopped belated, and their advertisements could not be read even when a block occurred close under a gas-lamp. The jewellers' windows emitted the most light; but even gold and silver wares seemed to have become tarnished in the sickening atmosphere. Then the smell from fishmongers' shops grew more sour as the assistant piled up the lobsters and flooded the marbles preparatory to closing; and, just within the circle of vision, inhaling the greasy fragrance of soup, a woman in a blue bonnet loitered near a grating.

'This is Bedford Street, I think,' said Kate, 'but it's so dark that it's impossible to see.'

'I suppose you know London well?' replied Ralph somewhat pointedly.

'Pretty well, I've been here now for some time.'

For the last three or four minutes not a word had been spoken. Kate was surprised that Ralph was not angry with her; she wanted to speak to him of old times, but it was hard to break the ice of intervening years. At last, as they stopped before the door of a small family hotel, he said:

'It's now something like four years since we parted, ain't it?'

The question startled her, and she answered nervously and hurriedly:

'I suppose it is, but I'd better wish you good-bye now-you're safe at home.'

'Oh no! come in; you look so very tired, a glass of wine will do you good.

Besides, what harm? Wasn't I your husband once?'

'Oh, Ralph! how can you?'

'Why, there's no reason why I shouldn't hear how you've been getting on. We're just like strangers, so many things have occurred; I've married since-but perhaps you didn't hear of it?'

'Married! Who did you marry?'

'Well! I married your assistant, Hender.'

'What, Hender your wife?' said Kate, with an intonation of voice that was full of pain. A dagger thrust suddenly through her side as she went up the staircase could not have wounded her more cruelly than the news that the woman who had been her assistant now owned the house that once was hers. The story of the dog in the manger is as old as the world.

Through the windows of the little public sitting-room nothing was visible; everything was shrouded in the yellow curtain of fog. A commercial traveller had drawn off his boots, and was warming his slippered feet by the fire.

'Dreadful weather, sir,' said the man. 'I'm afraid it won't do your cough much good. Will you come near the fire?'

'Thank you,' said Ralph.

Kate mechanically drew forward a chair. It would be impossible for them to say a word, for the traveller was evidently inclined to be garrulous, and both wondered what they should do; but at that moment the chambermaid came to announce that the gentleman's room was ready. He took up his boots and retired, leaving the two, who had once been husband and wife, alone; and yet it seemed as difficult as ever to speak of what was uppermost in their minds. Kate helped Ralph off with his great-coat, and she noticed that he looked thinner and paler. The servant brought up two glasses of grog, and when Kate had taken off her bonnet, she said: 'Do you think I'm much altered?'

'Well, since you ask me, Kate, I must say I don't think you're looking very well. You're thinner than you used to be, and you've lost a good deal of your hair.'

'I've only just recovered from a bad illness,' she said, sighing, and as she raised the glass to her lips the gaslight defined the whole contour of her head. The thick hair that used to encircle her pale prominent temples like rich velvet, looked now like a black silk band frayed and whitened at the seam.

'But what have you been doing? Have things gone pretty well with you?' said Ralph, whose breath came from him in a thin but continuous whistle. 'What happened when I got my decree of divorce?'

'Nothing particular for a while, but afterwards we were married.'

'Oh!' said Ralph, 'so he married you, did he? Well, I shouldn't have expected it of him. So we're both married. Isn't it odd? And meeting, too, in this way.'

'Yes, many things have happened since then. I've been on the stage-travelling all over England.'

'What! you on the stage, Kate?' said Ralph, lifting his head from his hand. 'Oh lord! oh lord! how-Ha! ha! oh! but I mustn't la-ugh; I won't be able to breathe.'

Kate turned to him almost angrily, and the ghost of the prima donna awakening in her, she said:

'I don't see what there is to laugh at. I've played all the leading parts, and in all the principal towns in England-Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds. The Newcastle Chronicle said my Serpolette was the best they'd seen.'

Ralph looked bewildered, like a man blinded for a moment by a sudden flash of lightning. He could not at once realize that this woman, who had been his wife, who had washed and scrubbed in his little home in Hanley, was now one of those luminous women who, in clear skirts and pink stockings, wander singing beautiful songs, amid illimitable forests and unscalable mountains. For a moment he regretted he had married Miss Hender.

'But I don't think I shall ever act again.'

'How's that?' he said with an intonation of disappointment in his voice.

'I don't know,' said Kate. 'I'm not living with my husband now, and I haven't the courage to look out for an engagement myself.'

Ralph stared at her vaguely. 'Look out for an engagement?' he repeated to himself; it seemed to him that he must be dreaming.

'Aren't you happy with him? Doesn't he treat you well?' said Ralph, dropping perforce from his dream back into reality,

'Oh yes, he has always been very good to me. I can't say how it was, but somehow after a time we didn't get on. I dare say it was my fault. But how do you get on with Miss Hender?' said Kate, partly from curiosity, half from a wish to change the conversation.

'Oh, pretty well,' said Ralph, with something that sounded, in spite of his wheezing, like a sigh.

'How does she manage the dressmaking? She was always a good workwoman, but she never had much taste, and I should fancy wouldn't be able to do much if left entirely to herself.'

'That's just what occurred. It's curious you should have guessed so correctly. The business has all gone to the dogs, and since mother's death we've turned the house into a lodging-house.'

'And is mother dead?' cried Kate, clasping her hands. 'What must she have thought of me.'

Ralph did not answer, but after a long silence he said:

'It's a pity, ain't it, that we didn't pull it off better together?'

Kate raised her head and looked at him quickly. Her look was full of gratitude.

'Yes,' she said, 'I behaved very badly towards you, but I believe I've been punished for it.'

'You told me that he married you and treated you very well.'

'Oh!' she said, bursting into tears, 'don't ask me, it's too long a story;

I'll tell you another time, but not now.'

It appeared to Kate that her heart was on fire and that she must die of grief. 'Was this life?' she asked herself. Oh, to be at rest and out of the way for ever! Ralph, too, seemed deeply affected; after a pause he said:

'I don't know how it was, or why, but now I come to think of it I remember that I used to be cross with you.'

'It was the asthma that made you cross, and well it might;' and she asked him if he still suffered from asthma, and he answered:

'At times, yes.'

'But the cigarettes,' she said, 'used to relieve you; do you still smoke them?'

'Yes, and sometimes they relieve me and sometimes they don't.' A long silence separated them, and breaking it suddenly he said:

'There were faults on both sides. On every side,' he added, 'for I don't exempt mother from blame either. She was always too hard upon you. Now, I should never have minded your going to the theatre and amusing yourself. I shouldn't have minded your being an actress, and I should have gone to fetch you home every evening.'

Kate smiled through her misery, and he continued, following his idea to the end:

'It wouldn't have interfered with the business if you had been; on the contrary, it would have brought us a connection, and I might have had up those plate-glass windows, and taken in the fruiterer's shop.'

Ralph stopped. The roar of London had sunk out of hearing in the yellow depths of the fog, and for some minutes nothing was heard but the short ticking of the clock. It was a melancholy pleasure to dream what might have been had things only taken a different turn, and like children making mud-pies it amused them to rebuild the little fabric of their lives; whilst one reconstructed his vision of broken glass, the other lamented over the ruins of penny journal sentiment. Then awakening by fits and starts, each confided in the other. Ralph told Kate how Mrs. Ede had spoken of her when her flight had been discovered; Kate tried to explain that she was not as much to blame as might be imagined. Ralph's curiosity constantly got the better of him, and he couldn't but ask her to tell him something about her stage experience. One thing led to another, and before twelve o'clock it surprised her to think she had told him so much.

The conversation was carried on in brief and broken phrases. The man and the woman sat close together shivering over the fire. There were no curtains to the windows, and the fog had crept through the sashes into the room. Kate coughed from time to time-a sharp, hacking cough-and Ralph's wheezing grew thicker in sound.

'I'm a-fraid I shall have a b-bad night, this dre-ad-ful weather.'

'I should like to stop to nurse you; but I must be getting home.'

'You surely won't think of going out such a night as this; you'll never find your way home.'

'Yes, yes, I shall; it wouldn't do for me to remain here.'

They who had once been husband and wife looked at each other, and both smiled painfully.

'Ve-ry well, I'll see you do-wnstairs.'

'Oh no! you mustn't, you'll kill yourself!'

Ralph, however, insisted. They stood on the doorstep for a moment together, suffocating in a sulphur-hued atmosphere.

'You'll come a-nd and see me again to-to-morrow, won't you?'

'Yes, yes!' cried Kate; 'to-morrow! to-morrow!' and she disappeared in the darkness.

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