“He looked,” said Mrs. Bircumshaw to Mrs. Gillatt, “he looked like a positive saint: one of the noble sort, you know, that will suffer with head up and with dreamy eyes. I nearly died of laughing.”
She spoke of Mr. Bircumshaw, who darted a look at his wife’s friend. Mrs. Gillatt broke into an almost derisive laugh. Bircumshaw shut tight his mouth, and set his large, square jaw. Frowning, he lowered his face out of sight.
Mrs. Bircumshaw seemed to glitter in the twilight. She was like a little, uncanny machine, working unheard and unknown, but occasionally snapping a spark. A small woman, very quiet in her manner, it was surprising that people should so often say of her, “She’s very vivacious.” It was her eyes: they were brown, very wide-open, very swift and ironic. As a rule she said little. This evening, her words and her looks were quick and brilliant. She had been married four years.
“I was thankful, I can tell you, that you didn’t go,” she continued to Mrs. Gillatt. “For a church pageant, it was the I most astonishing show. People blossomed out so differently. I never knew what a fine apostle was lost in Harry. When I saw him, I thought I should scream.”
“You looked sober enough every time I noticed you,” blurted Harry, in deep bass.
“You were much too rapt to notice me,” his wife laughed gaily. Nevertheless, her small head was lifted and alert, like a fighting bird’s. Mrs. Gillatt fell instinctively into rank with her, unconscious of the thrill of battle that moved her.
Mr. Bircumshaw, bowing forward, rested his arms on his knees, and whistled silently as he contemplated his feet. Also, he listened acutely to the women. He was a large-limbed, clean, powerful man, and a bank clerk. Son of a country clergyman, he had a good deal of vague, sensuous, religious feeling, but he lacked a Faith. He would have been a fine man to support a cause, but he had no cause. Even had he been forced to work hard and unremittingly, he would have remained healthy in spirit. As it was, he was a bank clerk, with a quantity of unspent energy turning sour in his veins, and a fair amount of barren leisure torturing his soul, He was degenerating: and now his wife turned upon him.
She had been a schoolteacher. He had had the money and the position. He was inclined to bully her, when he was not suited: which was fairly often.
“Harry was one of the ‘Three Wise Men.’ You should have seen him, Mrs. Gillatt. With his face coming out of that white forehead band, and the cloth that hung over his ears, he looked a picture. Imagine him—!”
Mrs. Gillatt looked at Bircumshaw, imagining him. Then she threw up her hands and laughed aloud. It was ludicrous to think of Bircumshaw, a hulking, frequently churlish man, as one of the Magi. Mrs. Gillatt was a rather beautiful woman of forty, almost too full in blossom. Better off than the Bircumshaws, she assumed the manner of patron and protector.
“Oh,” she cried, “I can see him—I can see him looking great and grand—Abraham! Oh, he’s got that grand cut of face, and plenty of size.”
She laughed rather derisively. She was a man’s woman, by instinct serving flattery with mockery.
“That’s it!” cried the little wife, deferentially. “Abraham setting out to sacrifice. He marched—his march was splendid.”
The two women laughed together. Mrs. Gillatt drew herself up superbly, laughing, then coming to rest.
“And usually, you know,” the wife broke off, “there’s a good deal of the whipped schoolboy about his walk.”
“There is, Harry,” laughed Mrs. Gillatt, shaking her white and jeweled hand at him. “You just remember that for the next time, my lad.” She was his senior by some eight years. He grinned sickly.
“But now,” Mrs. Bircumshaw continued, “he marched like a young Magi. You could see a look of the Star in his eyes.”
“Oh,” cried Mrs. Gillatt. “Oh! the look of the Star—!”
“Oftener the look of the Great Bear, isn’t it?” queried Mrs. Bircumshaw.
“That is quite true, Harry,” said the elder woman, laughing.
Bircumshaw cracked his strong fingers, brutally.
“Well, he came on,” continued the wife, “with the light of the Star in his eyes, his mouth fairly sweet with Christian resignation—”
“Oh!” cried Mrs. Gillatt, “oh—and he beats the baby. Christian resignation!” She laughed aloud. “Let me hear of you beating that child again, Harry Bircumshaw, and I’ll Christian-resignation you—”
Suddenly she remembered that this might implicate her friend. “I came in yesterday,” she explained, “at dinner. ‘What’s the matter, baby?’ I said, ‘what are you crying for?’ ‘Dadda beat baby—naughty baby.’ It was a good thing you had gone back to business, my lad, I can tell you. . . .”
Mrs. Bircumshaw glanced swiftly at her husband. He had ducked his head and was breaking his knuckles tensely. She turned her head with a quick, thrilled movement, more than ever like a fighting bird.
“And you know his nose,” she said, blithely resuming her narrative, as if it were some bit of gossip. “You know it usually looks a sort of ‘Mind your own business or you’ll get a hit in the jaw’ nose?”
“Yes,” cried Mrs. Gillatt, “it does—” and she seemed unable to contain her laughter. Then she dropped her fine head, pretending to be an angry buffalo glaring under bent brows, seeking whom he shall devour, in imitation of Harry’s nose.
Mrs. Bircumshaw bubbled with laughter.
“Ah!” said Mrs. Gillatt, and she winked at her friend as she sweetened Harry’s pill, “I know him—I know him.” Then: “And what did his nose look like?” she asked of the wife.
“Like Sir Galahad on horseback,” said Ethel Bircumshaw, spending her last shot.
Mrs. Gillatt drew her hand down her own nose, which was straight, with thin, flexible nostrils.
“How does it feel, Harry,” she asked, “to stroke Galahad on horseback?”
“I don’t know, I’m sure,” he said icily.
“Then stroke it, man, and tell me,” cried the elder woman: with which her last shot was sped. There was a moment of painful silence.
“And the way the others acted—it was screamingly funny,” the wife started. Then the two women, with one accord, began to make mock of the other actors in the pageant, people they knew, ridiculing them, however, only for blemishes that Harry had not, pulling the others to pieces in places where Harry was solid, thus leaving their man erect like a hero among the litter of his acquaintances.
This did not mollify him: it only persuaded him he was a fine figure, not to be carped at.
Suddenly, before the women had gone far, Bircumshaw jumped up. Mrs. Gillatt started. She got a glimpse of his strict form, in its blue serge, passing before her, then the door banged behind him.
Mrs. Gillatt was really astonished. She had helped in clipping this ignoble Samson, all unawares, from instinct. She had no idea of what she had been doing. She sat erect and superb, the picture of astonishment that is merging towards contempt.
“Is it someone at the door?” she asked, listening.
Mrs. Bircumshaw, with alert, listening eyes, shook her head quickly, with a meaning look of contempt.
“Is he mad?” whispered the elder woman. Her friend nodded. Then Mrs. Gillatt’s eyes dilated, and her face hardened with scorn. Mrs. Bircumshaw had not ceased to listen. She bent forward.
“Praise him,” she whispered, making a quick gesture that they should play a bit of fiction. They rose with zest to the game. “Praise him,” whispered the wife. Then she herself began. Every woman is a first-rate actress in private. She leaned forward, and in a slightly lowered yet very distinct voice, screened as if for privacy, yet penetrating clearly to the ears of her husband—he had lingered in the hall, she could hear—she said:
“You know Harry really acted splendidly.”
“I know,” said Mrs. Gillatt eagerly. “I know. I know he’s a really good actor.”
“He is. The others did look paltry beside him, I have to confess.”
Harry’s pride was soothed, but his wrath was not appeased.
“Yes,” he heard the screened voice of his wife say. “But for all that, I don’t care to see him on the stage. It’s not manly, somehow. It seems unworthy of a man with any character, somehow. Of course it’s all right for strangers— but for anyone you care for—anyone very near to you—”
Mrs. Gillatt chuckled to herself: this was a thing well done. The two women, however, had not praised very long —and the wife’s praise was sincere by the time she had finished her first sentence—before they were startled by a loud “Thud!” on the floor above their heads. Both started. It was dark, nearly nine o’clock. They listened in silence. Then came another “Thud!”
Mrs. Bircumshaw gave a little spurt of bitter-contemptuous laughter.
“He’s not—?” began Mrs. Gillatt.
“He’s gone to bed, and announces the fact by dropping his boots as he takes them off,” said the young wife bitterly.
Mrs. Gillatt was wide-eyed with amazement. “You don’t mean it!” she exclaimed.
Childless, married to an uxorious man whom she loved, this state of affairs was monstrous to her. Neither of the women spoke for a while. It was dark in the room. Then Mrs. Gillatt began, sotto voce:
“Well, I could never have believed it, no, not if you’d told me forever. He’s always so fussy—”
So she went on. Mrs. Bircumshaw let her continue. A restrained woman herself, the other’s outburst relieved her own tension. When she had sufficiently overcome her own emotion, and when she knew her husband to be in bed, she rose.
“Come into the kitchen, we can talk there,” she said. There was a new hardness in her voice. She had not “talked” before to anyone, had never mentioned her husband in blame.
The kitchen was bare, with drab walls glistening to the naked gas-jet. The tiled floor was uncovered, cold and damp. Everything was clean, stark, and cheerless. The large stove, littered with old paper, was black, black-cold. There was a baby’s high chair in one corner, and a teddy-bear, and a tin pigeon. Mrs. Bircumshaw threw a cloth on the table that was pushed up under the drab-blinded window, against the great, black stove, which radiated coldness since it could not radiate warmth.
“Will you stay to supper?” asked Mrs. Bircumshaw.
“What have you got?” was the frank reply.
“I’m afraid there’s only bread and cheese.”
“No thanks then. I don’t eat bread and cheese for supper, Ethel, and you ought not.”
They talked—or rather Mrs. Gillatt held forth for a few minutes, on suppers. Then there was a silence.
“I never knew such a thing in my life,” began Mrs. Gillatt, rather awkwardly, as a tentative: she wanted her friend to unbosom. “Is he often like it?” she persisted.
“Well, I can see now,” Mrs. Gillatt declared, “I can understand now. Often have I come in and seen you with your eyes all red: but you’ve not said anything, so I haven’t liked to. But I know now. Just fancy—the brute!—and will he be all right when you go to bed?”
“Will he keep it up tomorrow?” Mrs. Gillatt’s tone expressed nothing short of amazed horror.
“Oh yes, and very likely for two or three days.”
“Oh the brute! the brute!! Well, this has opened my eyes. I’ve been watching a few of these men lately, and I tell you—. You’ll not sleep with him tonight, shall you?”
“It would only make it worse.”
“Worse or not worse, I wouldn’t. You’ve got another bed aired—you had visitors till yesterday—there’s the bed—take baby and sleep there.”
“It would only make it worse,” said Mrs. Bircumshaw, weariedly. Mrs. Gillatt was silent a moment.
“Well—you’re better to him than I should be, I can tell you,” she said. “Ah, the brute, to think he should always be so fair and fussy to my face, and I think him so nice. But let him touch that child again—I Haven’t I seen her with her little arms red? ‘Gentlemanly’—so fond of quoting his ‘gentlemanly’! Eh, but this has opened my eyes, Ethel. Only let him touch that child again, to my knowledge. I only wish he would.”
Mrs. Bircumshaw listened to this threat in silence. Yet she did wish she could see the mean bully in her husband matched by this spoiled, arrogant, generous woman.
“But tell him, Ethel,” said Mrs. Gillatt, bending from her handsome height, and speaking in considerate tones, “tell him that I saw nothing—nothing. Tell him I thought he had suddenly been called to the door: tell him that—and that I thought he’d gone down the ‘Drive’ with a caller—say that —you can do it, it’s perfectly true—I did think so. So tell him—the brute!”
Mrs. Bircumshaw listened patiently, occasionally smiling to herself. She would tell her husband nothing, would never mention the affair to him. Moreover, she intended her husband to think he had made a fool of himself before this handsome woman whom he admired so much.
Bircumshaw heard his wife’s friend take her leave. He had been in torment while the two women were together in the far-off kitchen. Now the brute in him felt more sure, more triumphant. He was afraid of two women: he could cow one. He felt he had something to punish: that he had his own dignity and authority to assert: and he was going to punish, was going to assert.
“I should think,” said Mrs. Gillatt in departing, “that you won’t take him any supper.”
Mrs. Bircumshaw felt a sudden blaze of anger against him. But she laughed deprecatingly.
“You are a silly thing if you do,” cried the other. “My word, I’d starve him if I had him.”
“But you see you haven’t got him,” said the wife quietly.
“No, I’m thankful to say. But if I had—the brute!”
He heard her go, and was relieved. Now he could lie in bed and sulk to his heart’s content, and inflict penalties of ill-humor on his insolent wife. He was such a lusty, emotional man—and he had nothing to do. What was his work to him? Scarcely more than nothing. And what was to fill the rest of his life—nothing. He wanted something to do, and he thought he wanted more done for him. So he got into this irritable, sore state of moral debility. A man cannot respect himself unless he does something. But he can do without his own positive self-respect, so long as his wife respects him. But when the man who has no foothold for self-esteem sees his wife and his wife’s friend despise him, it is hell: he fights for very life. So Bircumshaw lay in bed in this state of ignoble misery. His wife had striven for a long time to pretend he was still her hero: but he had tried her patience too far. Now he was confounding heroism, mastery, with brute tyranny. He would be a tyrant, if not a hero.
She, downstairs, occasionally smiled to herself. This time she had given him his dues. Though her heart was pained and anxious, still she smiled: she had clipped a large lock from her Samson. Her smile rose from the deep of her woman’s nature.
After having eaten a very little supper, she worked about the house till ten o’clock. Her face had regained that close impassivity which many women wear when alone. Still impassive, at the end of her little tasks she fetched the dinner joint and made him four sandwiches, carefully seasoned and trimmed. Pouring him a glass of milk, she went upstairs with the tray, which looked fresh and tempting.
He had been listening acutely to her last movements. As she entered, however, he lay well under the bedclothes, breathing steadily, pretending to sleep. She came in quite calmly.
“Here is your supper,” she said, in a quiet, indifferent tone, ignoring the fact that he was supposed to be asleep. Another lock fell from his strength. He felt virtue depart from him, felt weak and watery in spirit, and he hated her. He made no reply, but kept up his pretense of sleep.
She bent over the cot of the sleeping baby, a bonny child of three. The little one was flushed in her sleep. Her fist was clenched in a tangle of hair over her small round ear, whilst even in sleep she pouted in her willful, imperious way. With very gentle fingers the mother loosened the bright hair and put it back from the full, small brow, that reminded one of the brow of a little Virgin by Memling. The father felt that he was left out, ignored. He would have wished to whisper a word to his wife, and so bring himself into the trinity, had he not been so wrath. He retired further into his manly bulk, felt weaker and more miserably insignificant, at the same time more enraged.
Mrs. Bircumshaw slipped into bed quietly, settling to rest at once, as far as possible from the broad form of her husband. Both lay quite still, although, as each knew, neither slept. The man felt he wanted to move, but his will was so weak and shrinking, he could not rouse his muscles. He lay tense, paralyzed with self-conscious shrinking, yet bursting to move. She nestled herself down quite at ease. She did not care, this evening, how he felt or thought: for once she let herself rest in indifference.
Towards one o’clock in the morning, just as she was drifting into sleep, her eyes flew open. She did not start or stir; she was merely wide awake. A match had been struck.
Her husband was sitting up in bed, leaning forward to the plate on the chair. Very carefully, she turned her head just enough to see him. His big back bulked above her. He was leaning forward to the chair. The candle, which he had set on the floor, so that its light should not penetrate the sleep of his wife, threw strange shadows on the ceiling, and lighted his throat and underneath his strong chin. Through the arch of his arm, she could see his jaw and his throat working. For some strange reason, he felt that he could not eat in the dark. Occasionally she could see his cheek bulged with food. He ate rapidly, almost voraciously, leaning over the edge of the bed and taking care of the crumbs. She noticed the weight of his shoulder muscles at rest upon the arm on which he leaned.
“The strange animal!” she said to herself, and she laughed, laughed heartily within herself.
“Are they nice?” she longed to say, slyly.
“Are they nice?”—she must say it—“are they nice?” The temptation was almost too great. But she was afraid of this lusty animal startled at his feeding. She dared not twit him.
He took the milk, leaned back, almost arching backwards over her as he drank. She shrank with a little fear, a little repulsion, which was nevertheless half pleasurable. Cowering under his shadow, she shrugged with contempt, yet her eyes widened with a small, excited smile. This vanished, and a real scorn hardened her lips: when he was sulky his blood was cold as water, nothing could rouse it to passion; he resisted caresses as if he had thin acid in his veins. “Mean in the blood,” she said to herself.
He finished the food and milk, licked his lips, nipped out the candle, then stealthily lay down. He seemed to sink right into a grateful sleep.
“Nothing on earth is so vital to him as a meal,” she thought.
She lay a long time thinking, before she fell asleep.