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A Mummer's Wife By George Moore Characters: 23844

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


But on the morrow she could not leave her room, and at the end of the week the news at the Bedford Hotel was that Mr. Ede had gone away the day before without leaving any message.

The porter who informed her of his departure looked her over curiously, setting her thinking that he thought Mr. Ede had done well to get clear of the likes of her. She had tried to make herself look tidy and thought she had succeeded, but tidy or untidy, it was all the same, nothing mattered now; she was done for. No doubt the porter was right; Ralph had gone away to escape from her, which was just as well, for what more had they to say to each other: hadn't he married Hender? And passing in front of a shop-window she caught sight of herself in a looking-glass. 'Not up to much,' she said, and passed on into the Strand mumbling her misfortunes and causing the passers-by to look after her. She had not pinned up her skirt safely, a foot of it dragged over the pavement, and hearing jeering voices behind her she went into a public-house to ask for a pin. The barmaid obliged her with one, and while arranging her skirt she heard a man say: 'Well, they that talk of the evil of drinking know very little of what they are talking about. Drink has saved as many men as it has killed.' Kate's heart warmed to the man, for she knew a glass had often saved her from making away with herself, but never had she felt more like the river in her life than she did that morning. Threepennyworth would be enough, she could not afford more; Dick was only allowing her two pounds a week, and a woman had to look after the thirty-nine shillings very strictly to find the fortieth in her pocket before her next week's money was due. She felt better after having her glass; her thoughts were no longer on the river lying at the end of Wellington Street, but on the passengers in the Strand, the swaggering mummers, male and female; the men with lordly airs and billycock hats; the women with yellow hair and unholy looks upon their faces. There were groups of men and women round a theatrical agent's place of business, all sorts of people coming and going; lawyers from the Temple, journalists on their way to Fleet Street; prostitutes of all kinds and all sorts, young and old, fat and thin, of all nationalities, French, Belgian, and German, went by in couples, in rows, their eyes flaming invitations. Children with orange coloured hair sold matches and were followed down suspicious alleys; a strange hurried life, full of complexity, had begun in the twilight before the lamplighters went by. Girls and boys scrambled after each other quarrelling and selling newspapers. The spectacle helped the time away between four o'clock and seven. At seven she turned into some eating-house and dined for a shilling, and afterwards there was nothing to do than wander in the Strand. Some of the women who preferred to pick up a living by the sale of their lips rather than by standing for hours over a stinking wash-tub were very often kindly human beings, and there was nobody else except these street-walkers with whom she could exchange a few words and invite into a drinking shop for a glass. Over the counter she related her successes as Clairette in Madame Angot and Serpolette in Les Cloches de Corneville, and if an incredulous look came into the faces of her guests she sang to them the little ditties, proving by her knowledge of them that all she told them was true. From the drinking-shop they passed out in groups, and these women took Kate to their eating-houses, and she listened to their stories, and when at the end of the week she had spent all her money sometimes these women lent her shillings and half-crowns, and when she could not return the money she had borrowed they asked her: 'Why don't you do as we do?'

Her pretty face of former days was almost gone by this time, but traces of it still remained. 'If you would only dress yourself a little more becomingly and come along with us, you would be able to make two ends meet. With what you get from your husband you would be better off than any of us.' But she could not be persuaded, and as time moved on, and drunkenness became more inveterate, the belief that she was not utterly lost unless she was unfaithful to Dick took possession of her, and she clung to it with an almost desperate insistency, saying to her friends, 'If I were to do that I should go down to the river and drown myself.' She used to hear laughter when she said these words, and the replies were that every woman had said the same thing: 'But we all come to it sooner or later.' 'Not me, not me!' she replied, tottering out of the public-house. But one night, awakening in the dusk between daylight and dark, she remembered that something had befallen her that had never befallen her before. She was not sure, it may have been that she had dreamed it. All the same, she could not rid herself of the idea that last night in the public-house near Charing Cross a man had come in and said he would pay for the drinks, and that afterwards she had gone to one of the hotels in Villiers Street. If she hadn't why did she think of Villiers Street? She rarely went down that street. Yet she was haunted by a memory, a hateful memory that had kept her awake, and had caused her to moan and to cry for hours, till at last sleep fell upon her. On waking her first thought was to inquire from the women, and she walked up and down the Strand seeking them till nightfall. But they could tell her nothing of what had happened after she left them, 'Dry your eyes, Kate,' they said. 'What matter? Your husband deserted you; aren't you free to live with whom you please?'

Kate felt that all they said was true enough, but she prayed that the memory of the hotel bedroom that had risen up in her mind was the memory of a dream, and not of something that had befallen her in her waking senses. It were bad enough that she should have dreamed such a thing, and on returning home she fell on her knees and prayed that what she feared had been, had not been; and she rose from her knees, her eyes full of tears, and a sort of leaden despair in her heart that she felt would never pass away.

As the days went by her mind became denser, she fell into obtusities out of which she found it difficult to rouse herself. Even her violent temper seemed to leave her, and miserable and hopeless she rolled from one lodging to another, drinking heavily, bringing the drink back with her and drinking in her bed until her hand was too unsteady to pour out another glass of whisky. She drank whisky, brandy, gin, and if she couldn't get these, any other spirit would serve her purpose, even methylated spirit.

Her bed-curtains were taken away by the landlady lest Kate should set them on fire. The landlady lit the gas at nightfall and turned it out before she went to bed-'Only in that way,' she said to herself, 'can we be sure that that woman won't burn us all to death in our beds. Once a room is let,' she continued, 'it's hard to turn a sick woman out, especially if there's no excuse, and in this case there's none. For you see, Mrs. Lennox is getting two pounds a week from her husband,' Mr. Locker, Mrs. Rawson's evening friend, agreed with her; and he spoke of the recompense she would be entitled to from Mr. Lennox in the event of Mrs. Lennox's death; 'for, of course, every trouble and annoyance should be recompensed.' She agreed with him; but her eyes suddenly softening, she said: 'I haven't seen her since this morning when I took her up a cup of tea. She may like a bit of dinner. We're having some rabbit for supper, I'll ask her if she'd like a piece.'

A few minutes later she returned saying she was afraid Mrs. Lennox was dying, and that it might be as well to send to the hospital. Locker answered that perhaps it would be just as well, but on second thoughts he suggested that the husband should be communicated with.

'It isn't far to the Opéra Comique,' Mrs. Rawson answered, 'I'll just put on my hat and jacket and go round there.'

'It'll be the best way to escape responsibility,' Locker said on the doorstep; but without answering she went up the Strand, passing over to the other side when she came in sight of the Globe Theatre.

'Where's the stage entrance of the Opéra Comique?' she asked at the bookstall at the corner of Holliwell Street, and was told that she would find the stage entrance in Wytch Street, about half-way down the street. 'The stage-doors of the Globe and the Opéra Comique are side by side,' was cried after her. 'What does he mean by half-way down the street,' she muttered; 'he meant a quarter down,' and she addressed herself to the door-keeper, who answered surlily that Mr. Lennox was particularly engaged at that moment, but at Mrs. Rawson's words-'I believe his wife is dying'-he agreed to send up a message as soon as he could get hold of somebody to take it. At last somebody's dresser was stopped as he was about to pass through the swing-door; he agreed to take the message, and a few minutes after Mrs. Rawson was conducted up several little staircases and down some passages to find herself eventually in a small room in which there were three people, one a pleasant-faced man, so affable and kind that Mrs. Rawson thought she could have got on with him very well if she had had a chance. By him stood a tall imperious lady who rustled a voluminous skirt-a person of importance, Mrs. Rawson judged her to be from the deference with which a little thread-paper-man listened to her-the costumier, she learnt from scraps of conversation.

'I'm sorry,' Mr. Lennox said. 'All you tell me is very sad. But I'm afraid

I can do nothing.'

'That's what I think myself,' Mrs. Rawson answered. 'I'm afraid there's nothing to be done, but I thought I'd better come and tell you. You see, when I went up with some beef-tea she looked to me like one that hadn't many days to live. I may be mistaken, of course.'

'She should have a nurse,' Mrs. Forest said.

'I do all I can for her,' Mrs. Rawson murmured, 'but you see with three children to look after and only one maid,'-the two women began to talk together and the thread-paper man took advantage of the opportunity to whisper to Dick that he thought he could manage to do the flower-girls' dresses at five shillings less.

'That will be all right,' Dick replied. 'I will call round in the morning,

Mr. Shaffle.'

Mrs. Forest held out her jacket to Dick, who helped her into it.

'Where are you going … shall you be coming back again?' he asked.

'I'm going to nurse your wife, Dick,' she said, picking up her long feather boa, 'and isn't all that is happening now a vindication that we did well not to yield ourselves to ourselves?-for had we done so our regrets would be now unanimous, and I shouldn't be able to go to her with clear conscience…. She's been drinking heavily again, no doubt,' Mrs. Forest said, turning to Mrs. Rawson. 'But we mustn't judge or condemn anyone, so Jesus hath said. I'll go with you now, Mrs. Rawson, and you'll perhaps come to-morrow, Dick, to see her?'

'If I could help my wife I'd go, Laura, but as I've often told you, my will to help her was spent long ago; it would be of no use.' Laura's eyes lit up for a moment. 'But if she asks to see me I'll go.' At these words Mrs. Forest's eyes softened, and he began to ask himself how much truth there was in Laura's resolve to go and attend upon his wife in what was no doubt a last agony. Seeing and hearing her put into his head remembrances of an actress, he could not remember which. Her demeanour was as lofty as any and her speech almost rose into blank verse at times; and he began to think that she had missed her vocation in life. It might have been that she was destined by nature for the stage. 'She's more mummer than myself or Kate,' he said to himself, and giving an ear to her outpouri

ngs, he recognized in them the rudiments of the grand style: and he admired her transitions-her voice would drop and she seemed to find her way back into homely speech. Her soul seemed to pass back and forwards easily, and Dick did not feel sure which was the real woman and which the fictitious. 'She doesn't know herself,' he said, for at that moment she had left the tripod and was sitting in imagination at the bedside in attendance, looking from the patient to the clock, administering the medicine on the exact time.

When Mrs. Rawson spoke about the length of the day and night she answered that she would take her work with her, and bade Dick not to be anxious about the changes he had asked her to make in the second act. 'They shall be made,' she said, 'and without laying myself open to any claim for demurrage.'

'Demurrage' Dick exclaimed.

'She shall have attendance, but a soul ready to depart shouldn't be detained in port longer than is necessary. And Mrs. Rawson would like to let her room to one who has not received her sailing orders, as is the case with your poor wife, Dick,-that is to say, if I understand Mrs. Rawson's account of her illness.'

'She's not here for long,' Mrs. Rawson answered; 'but you mustn't think, ma'am, that I'd lay any under claim for the trouble she's been to me, only what is fair. "Fair is fair all the world over," has been my maxim ever since I started letting apartments. But perhaps, ma'am, you'll be wanting a room in my house. If you do there's the drawing-room floor, which would suit you nicely. But you can't be day nurse and night nurse yourself.' Laura answered that that was true, and talking of a nurse from Charing Cross Hospital they went out of the house together. At the end of the street Laura stopped suddenly. 'But she must have a doctor,' she said, and waited for Mrs. Rawson to recommend one, and Mrs. Rawson replied that the doctor that attended her and her children was out of town.

'We will ask here,' Laura said, and called to the cabby to stop at the apothecary's, and the questions she put to the man behind the counter were so pertinent that Mrs. Rawson began to think that perhaps she had misjudged Mrs. Forest, who now seemed to her a sensible and practical woman. They jumped again into a cab, and after a short drive returned with a doctor, Laura relating to him in the cab all they knew about his patient.

'From what you tell me it seems a bad case,' he said, and turning from

Laura to Mrs. Rawson he asked her to describe the patient.

'When I took up the beef-tea I found her that bad that I felt that I'd always have it on my conscience if I didn't let her husband know how bad his wife was--'

'I'm afraid, doctor, that she's been drinking for years,' Laura interjected.

'Well, as soon as I see Mrs. Lennox I shall be able to tell you if there is in my opinion any reasonable hope of saving her. I believe you're going to nurse Mrs. Lennox through this illness?' he asked Laura, and she began to tell him how she had always known of this duty: years before she had ever met Mr. Lennox it had been revealed to her-not the exact time, but the fact that she would have to attend upon the wife of some man who would be engaged in the publication of some of her works. 'You see, her husband is producing my play Incarnation at the Opéra Comique, and I've brought some of my work with me.' She opened her bag and laid on the table the manuscript entitled Sayings of the Sybil, and the doctor listened at first not satisfied that she was altogether the nurse into whose charge he would have liked to have given Mrs. Lennox; but feeling that, if he were to press the necessity of a nurse on Mrs. Forest, she might leave, he refrained, thinking that very often people who talked eccentrically were very practical. He had known extravagant speech go with practical nursing, and hoping that Mrs. Forest would prove another such one, he laid down the manuscript on the table.

'But if you believe that we live hereafter, why should you deny pre-existence?' and without waiting for the doctor to answer, Laura averred that she had lived at least eight times already; witnessing the dread contest of death, and dying for the cause of Pan, and the Light-King, and Eros the immortal, 'whose I am,' she said; 'and once again, for the ninth time, I live and watch the contest-watch with joy which overcomes fear, with love that conquers death.'

'Well, I hope we shall be able to conquer death in this instance,' the doctor answered, 'and with care we may save her for some time, and if-'

'Ah, if,' Laura interjected, and curtseying to him she led the doctor to the door. 'Nothing,' she began, 'can be worse than the present state of earth-life, and in all its phases; if the human race is to be evolved into a higher degree of perfection, no weak half-measures will avail to effect the change; there must, on the contrary, be a radical change in hereditary environment.'

The doctor listened a moment and, as if enchanted with the impression she had produced, Laura went back to the writing-table, and settling the folds of her brown silk widely over the floor, she began to write:

'"Ye gods, they fail, they falter,

Thy hand hath struck them down.

Their woof the Parcae alter,

Beware thy mother's frown!

What such as I in glory

Compared with such as thee?

Would, in the conflict gory,

That I had died for thee!"'

At this point the inspiration seemed to desert her, and raising her pen from the paper, she bit its end thoughtfully, seeking for a transitional phrase whereby she might be able to allude to the Light-god.

They were in a six-shilling-a-week bedroom in the neighbourhood of the Strand. The window looked on to a bit of red-tiled roofing, a cistern, and a clothes-line on which a petticoat flapped, and in a small iron bedstead, facing the light, Kate lay delirious, her stomach enormously distended by dropsy. From time to time she waved her arms, now wasted to mere bones. She had been insensible for three whole days, speaking in broken phrases of her past life-of Mrs. Ede, the potteries, the two little girls, Annie and Lizzie. Dick, she declared, had been very good to her. Ralph, too, had been kind, and she was determined that the two men should not quarrel over her. They must not kill each other; she would not allow it; they should be friends. They would all be friends yet; that is to say, if Mrs. Ede would permit of it; and why should she stand between people and make enemies of them? She fell back into stupor; and next day her ideas were still more confused. In the belief that it was for the part of the Baillie that Dick and Ralph were quarrelling she began to express her regret that there was nothing in the piece for her. Nor were memories of the baby girl who had died in Manchester lacking. She prayed Ralph to believe that the child was not his but Dick's child. She prayed and supplicated in Laura's arms till Laura laid her back on the pillow exhausted.

'Give me something to drink; I'm dying of thirst,' the sick woman murmured faintly.

Laura started from her reveries, and going over to the fireplace, where the beef-tea was standing, poured out half a cup; but, owing to great difficulty in breathing, it was some time before the patient could drink it.

After a long silence Kate said:

'I've been very ill, haven't I? I think I must be dying.'

'Death is not death,' Laura answered, 'when we die for Pan, the undying representative of the universe cognizable to the senses.'

Over Kate's mind lay a vague dream, through whose gloom two things were just perceptible-an idea of death and a desire to see Dick. But she was almost too weak to seek for words, and it was with great effort that she said:

'I don't remember who you are; I can think of nothing now, but I should like to see my husband once more. Could you fetch him? Is he here?'

'You've not been happy with him, I know, my sister; but I don't blame you. Your marriage was not a psychological union; and when marriage isn't that, woman cannot set her foot on the lowest temple of Eros.'

'I'm too ill to talk with you,' Kate replied, 'but I loved my husband well, too well. I keep all my little remembrances of him in that box; they aren't much-not much-but I should like him to have them when I'm gone, so that he may know that I loved him to the last. Perhaps then he may forgive me. Will you let me see them?'

She looked at the packet of letters, kissed the crumpled calico rose, the button she had pulled off his coat in a drunken fit and preserved for love, and she even slipped on her wrist the last few pearls that remained of the chaplet she wore when they played at sweethearts in The Lovers' Knot. But after the love-tokens had been put back in the box, and Kate again asked Mrs. Forest to bring Dick to her, she began to ramble in her speech, and to fancy herself in Hanley. The most diverse scenes were heaped together in the complex confusion of Kate's nightmare; the most opposed ideas were intermingled. At one moment she told the little girls, Annie and Lizzie, of the immorality of the conversations in the dressing-rooms of theatres; at another she stopped the Rehearsal of an opéra bouffe to preach to the mummers-in phrases that were remembrances of the extemporaneous prayers in the Wesleyan Church-of the advantages of an earnest, working religious life. It was like a costume ball, where chastity grinned from behind a mask that vice was looking for, while vice hid his nakedness in some of the robes that chastity had let fall. Thus up and down, like dice thrown by demon players, were rattled the two lives, the double life that this weak woman had lived, and a point was reached where the two became one, when she began to sing her famous song:

'Look at me here, look at me there,'

alternately with the Wesleyan hymns. Sometimes in her delirium she even fitted the words of one on to the tune of the other.

Still, Laura took no notice, and her pen continued to scratch, scratch, till it occurred to her that although Dick's marriage had not been a psychological one, it might be as well that he should see his wife before she died; and having come to this conclusion suddenly, she put on her bonnet and left the house.

The landlady brought in the lamp, placing it on the table, out of sight of the dying woman's eyes.

A dreadful paleness had changed even the yellow of her face to an ashen tint; her lips had disappeared, her eyes were dilated, and she tried to raise herself up in bed. Her withered arms were waved to and, fro, and in the red gloom shed from the ill-smelling paraffin lamp the large, dimly seen folds of the bedclothes were tossed to and fro by the convulsions that agitated the whole body. Another hour passed away, marked by the cavernous breathing of the woman as she crept to the edge of death. At last there came a sigh, deeper and more prolonged; and with it she died.

Soon after, before the corpse had grown cold, heavy steps were heard on the staircase, and Dick and Laura entered, one with a quantity of cockatoo-like flutterings, the other steadily, like a big and ponderous animal. At a glance they saw that all was over, and in silence they sat down, their hands resting on the table. The man spoke hesitatingly in awkward phrases of a happy release; the woman listened with a calm serenity that caused Dick to wonder. She would have liked to have said something concerning psychological marriages, but the appearance of the huge body beneath the bed-clothes restrained her: he wished to say something nice and kind, but Laura's presence put everything out of his head, and so his ideas became more than ever broken and disjointed, his thoughts wandered, until at last, lifting his eyes from the manuscript on the table, he said:

'Have you finished the second act, dear?'

THE END

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