A Fragment of Life – Ib

‘I wanted to consult you about some furniture,’ Darnell said at last. ‘You know we’ve got a spare room, and I’m thinking of putting a few things into it. I haven’t exactly made up my mind, but I thought you might advise me.’

‘Come into my den,’ said Wilson. ‘No; this way, by the back’; and he showed Darnell another ingenious arrangement at the side door whereby a violent high-toned bell was set pealing in the house if one did but touch the latch. Indeed, Wilson handled it so briskly that the bell rang a wild alarm, and the servant, who was trying on her mistress’s things in the bedroom, jumped madly to the window and then danced a hysteric dance. There was plaster found on the drawing-room table on Sunday afternoon, and Wilson wrote a letter to the ‘Fulham Chronicle,’ ascribing the phenomenon ‘to some disturbance of a seismic nature.’

For the moment he knew nothing of the great results of his contrivance, and solemnly led the way towards the back of the house. Here there was a patch of turf, beginning to look a little brown, with a background of shrubs. In the middle of the turf, a boy of nine or ten was standing all alone, with something of an air.

‘The eldest,’ said Wilson. ‘Havelock. Well, Lockie, what are ye doing now? And where are your brother and sister?’

The boy was not at all shy. Indeed, he seemed eager to explain the course of events.

‘I’m playing at being Gawd,’ he said, with an engaging frankness. ‘And I’ve sent Fergus and Janet to the bad place. That’s in the shrubbery. And they’re never to come out any more. And they’re burning for ever and ever.’

‘What d’you think of that?’ said Wilson admiringly. ‘Not bad for a youngster of nine, is it? They think a lot of him at the Sunday-school. But come into my den.’

The den was an apartment projecting from the back of the house. It had been designed as a back kitchen and washhouse, but Wilson had draped the ‘copper’ in art muslin and had boarded over the sink, so that it served as a workman’s bench.

‘Snug, isn’t it?’ he said, as he pushed forward one of the two wicker chairs. ‘I think out things here, you know; it’s quiet. And what about this furnishing? Do you want to do the thing on a grand scale?’

‘Oh, not at all. Quite the reverse. In fact, I don’t know whether the sum at our disposal will be sufficient. You see the spare room is ten feet by twelve, with a western exposure, and I thought if we could manage it, that it would seem more cheerful furnished. Besides, it’s pleasant to be able to ask a visitor; our aunt, Mrs. Nixon, for example. But she is accustomed to have everything very nice.’

‘And how much do you want to spend?’

‘Well, I hardly think we should be justified in going much beyond ten pounds. That isn’t enough, eh?’

Wilson got up and shut the door of the back kitchen impressively. ‘Look here,’ he said, ‘I’m glad you came to me in the first place. Now you’ll just tell me where you thought of going yourself.’

‘Well, I had thought of the Hampstead Road,’ said Darnell in a hesitating manner.

‘I just thought you’d say that. But I’ll ask you, what is the good of going to those expensive shops in the West End? You don’t get a better article for your money. You’re merely paying for fashion.’

‘I’ve seen some nice things in Samuel’s, though. They get a brilliant polish on their goods in those superior shops. We went there when we were married.’

‘Exactly, and paid ten per cent more than you need have paid. It’s throwing money away. And how much did you say you had to spend? Ten pounds. Well, I can tell you where to get a beautiful bedroom suite, in the very highest finish, for six pound ten. What d’you think of that? China included, mind you; and a square of carpet, brilliant colours, will only cost you fifteen and six. Look here, go any Saturday afternoon to Dick’s, in the Seven Sisters Road, mention my name, and ask for Mr. Johnston. The suite’s in ash, “Elizabethan” they call it. Six pound ten, including the china, with one of their “Orient” carpets, nine by nine, for fifteen and six. Dick’s.’

Wilson spoke with some eloquence on the subject of furnishing. He pointed out that the times were changed, and that the old heavy style was quite out of date.

‘You know,’ he said, ‘it isn’t like it was in the old days, when people used to buy things to last hundreds of years. Why, just before the wife and I were married, an uncle of mine died up in the North and left me his furniture. I was thinking of furnishing at the time, and I thought the things might come in handy; but I assure you there wasn’t a single article that I cared to give house-room to. All dingy, old mahogany; big bookcases and bureaus, and claw-legged chairs and tables. As I said to the wife (as she was soon afterwards), “We don’t exactly want to set up a chamber of horrors, do we?” So I sold off the lot for what I could get. I must confess I like a cheerful room.’

Darnell said he had heard that artists liked the old-fashioned furniture.

‘Oh, I dare say. The “unclean cult of the sunflower,” eh? You saw that piece in the “Daily Post”? I hate all that rot myself. It isn’t healthy, you know, and I don’t believe the English people will stand it. But talking of curiosities, I’ve got something here that’s worth a bit of money.’

He dived into some dusty receptacle in a corner of the room, and showed Darnell a small, worm-eaten Bible, wanting the first five chapters of Genesis and the last leaf of the Apocalypse. It bore the date of 1753.

‘It’s my belief that’s worth a lot,’ said Wilson. ‘Look at the worm-holes. And you see it’s “imperfect,” as they call it. You’ve noticed that some of the most valuable books are “imperfect” at the sales?’

The interview came to an end soon after, and Darnell went home to his tea. He thought seriously of taking Wilson’s advice, and after tea he told Mary of his idea and of what Wilson had said about Dick’s.

Mary was a good deal taken by the plan when she had heard all the details. The prices struck her as very moderate. They were sitting one on each side of the grate (which was concealed by a pretty cardboard screen, painted with landscapes), and she rested her cheek on her hand, and her beautiful dark eyes seemed to dream and behold strange visions. In reality she was thinking of Darnell’s plan.

‘It would be very nice in some ways,’ she said at last. ‘But we must talk it over. What I am afraid of is that it will come to much more than ten pounds in the long run. There are so many things to be considered. There’s the bed. It would look shabby if we got a common bed without brass mounts. Then the bedding, the mattress, and blankets, and sheets, and counterpane would all cost something.’

She dreamed again, calculating the cost of all the necessaries, and Darnell stared anxiously; reckoning with her, and wondering what her conclusion would be. For a moment the delicate colouring of her face, the grace of her form, and the brown hair, drooping over her ears and clustering in little curls about her neck, seemed to hint at a language which he had not yet learned; but she spoke again.

‘The bedding would come to a great deal, I am afraid. Even if Dick’s are considerably cheaper than Boon’s or Samuel’s. And, my dear, we must have some ornaments on the mantelpiece. I saw some very nice vases at eleven-three the other day at Wilkin and Dodd’s. We should want six at least, and there ought to be a centre-piece. You see how it mounts up.’

Darnell was silent. He saw that his wife was summing up against his scheme, and though he had set his heart on it, he could not resist her arguments.

‘It would be nearer twelve pounds than ten,’ she said. ‘The floor would have to be stained round the carpet (nine by nine, you said?), and we should want a piece of linoleum to go under the washstand. And the walls would look very bare without any pictures.’

‘I thought about the pictures,’ said Darnell; and he spoke quite eagerly. He felt that here, at least, he was unassailable. ‘You know there’s the “Derby Day” and the “Railway Station,” ready framed, standing in the corner of the box-room already. They’re a bit old-fashioned, perhaps, but that doesn’t matter in a bedroom. And couldn’t we use some photographs? I saw a very neat frame in natural oak in the City, to hold half a dozen, for one and six. We might put in your father, and your brother James, and Aunt Marian, and your grandmother, in her widow’s cap–and any of the others in the album. And then there’s that old family picture in the hair-trunk–that might do over the mantelpiece.’

‘You mean your great-grandfather in the gilt frame? But that’s very old-fashioned, isn’t it? He looks so queer in his wig. I don’t think it would quite go with the room, somehow.’

Darnell thought a moment. The portrait was a ‘kitcat’ of a young gentleman, bravely dressed in the fashion of 1750, and he very faintly remembered some old tales that his father had told him about this ancestor–tales of the woods and fields, of the deep sunken lanes, and the forgotten country in the west.

‘No,’ he said, ‘I suppose it is rather out of date. But I saw some very nice prints in the City, framed and quite cheap.’

‘Yes, but everything counts. Well, we will talk it over, as you say. You know we must be careful.’

The servant came in with the supper, a tin of biscuits, a glass of milk for the mistress, and a modest pint of beer for the master, with a little cheese and butter. Afterwards Edward smoked two pipes of honeydew, and they went quietly to bed; Mary going first, and her husband following a quarter of an hour later, according to the ritual established from the first days of their marriage. Front and back doors were locked, the gas was turned off at the meter, and when Darnell got upstairs he found his wife already in bed, her face turned round on the pillow.

She spoke softly to him as he came into the room. ‘It would be impossible to buy a presentable bed at anything under one pound eleven, and good sheets are dear, anywhere.’

He slipped off his clothes and slid gently into bed, putting out the candle on the table. The blinds were all evenly and duly drawn, but it was a June night, and beyond the walls, beyond that desolate world and wilderness of grey Shepherd’s Bush, a great golden moon had floated up through magic films of cloud, above the hill, and the earth was filled with a wonderful light between red sunset lingering over the mountain and that marvellous glory that shone into the woods from the summit of the hill. Darnell seemed to see some reflection of that wizard brightness in the room; the pale walls and the white bed and his wife’s face lying amidst brown hair upon the pillow were illuminated, and listening he could almost hear the corncrake in the fields, the fern-owl sounding his strange note from the quiet of the rugged place where the bracken grew, and, like the echo of a magic song, the melody of the nightingale that sang all night in the alder by the little brook. There was nothing that he could say, but he slowly stole his arm under his wife’s neck, and played with the ringlets of brown hair. She never moved, she lay there gently breathing, looking up to the blank ceiling of the room with her beautiful eyes, thinking also, no doubt, thoughts that she could not utter, kissing her husband obediently when he asked her to do so, and he stammered and hesitated as he spoke.

They were nearly asleep, indeed Darnell was on the very eve of dreaming, when she said very softly–‘I am afraid, darling, that we could never afford it.’ And he heard her words through the murmur of the water, dripping from the grey rock, and falling into the clear pool beneath.

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