A Fragment of Life – Id

After their dinner (an excellent piece of Australian mutton, bought in the ‘World Wide’ Stores, in Hammersmith), they sat for some time in the garden, partly sheltered by the big mulberry tree from the observation of their neighbours. Edward smoked his honeydew, and Mary looked at him with placid affection.

‘You never tell me about the men in your office,’ she said at length. ‘Some of them are nice fellows, aren’t they?’

‘Oh, yes, they’re very decent. I must bring some of them round, one of these days.’

He remembered with a pang that it would be necessary to provide whisky. One couldn’t ask the guest to drink table beer at tenpence the gallon.

‘Who are they, though?’ said Mary. ‘I think they might have given you a wedding present.’

‘Well, I don’t know. We never have gone in for that sort of thing. But they’re very decent chaps. Well, there’s Harvey; “Sauce” they call him behind his back. He’s mad on bicycling. He went in last year for the Two Miles Amateur Record. He’d have made it, too, if he could have got into better training.

‘Then there’s James, a sporting man. You wouldn’t care for him. I always think he smells of the stable.’

‘How horrid!’ said Mrs. Darnell, finding her husband a little frank, lowering her eyes as she spoke.

‘Dickenson might amuse you,’ Darnell went on. ‘He’s always got a joke. A terrible liar, though. When he tells a tale we never know how much to believe. He swore the other day he’d seen one of the governors buying cockles off a barrow near London Bridge, and Jones, who’s just come, believed every word of it.’

Darnell laughed at the humorous recollection of the jest.

‘And that wasn’t a bad yarn about Salter’s wife,’ he went on. ‘Salter is the manager, you know. Dickenson lives close by, in Notting Hill, and he said one morning that he had seen Mrs. Salter, in the Portobello Road, in red stockings, dancing to a piano organ.’

‘He’s a little coarse, isn’t he?’ said Mrs. Darnell. ‘I don’t see much fun in that.’

‘Well, you know, amongst men it’s different. You might like Wallis; he’s a tremendous photographer. He often shows us photos he’s taken of his children–one, a little girl of three, in her bath. I asked him how he thought she’d like it when she was twenty-three.’

Mrs. Darnell looked down and made no answer.

There was silence for some minutes while Darnell smoked his pipe. ‘I say, Mary,’ he said at length, ‘what do you say to our taking a paying guest?’

‘A paying guest! I never thought of it. Where should we put him?’

‘Why, I was thinking of the spare room. The plan would obviate your objection, wouldn’t it? Lots of men in the City take them, and make money of it too. I dare say it would add ten pounds a year to our income. Redgrave, the cashier, finds it worth his while to take a large house on purpose. They have a regular lawn for tennis and a billiard-room.’

Mary considered gravely, always with the dream in her eyes. ‘I don’t think we could manage it, Edward,’ she said; ‘it would be inconvenient in many ways.’ She hesitated for a moment. ‘And I don’t think I should care to have a young man in the house. It is so very small, and our accommodation, as you know, is so limited.’

She blushed slightly, and Edward, a little disappointed as he was, looked at her with a singular longing, as if he were a scholar confronted with a doubtful hieroglyph, either wholly wonderful or altogether commonplace. Next door children were playing in the garden, playing shrilly, laughing, crying, quarrelling, racing to and fro. Suddenly a clear, pleasant voice sounded from an upper window. ‘Enid! Charles! Come up to my room at once!’

There was an instant sudden hush. The children’s voices died away.

‘Mrs. Parker is supposed to keep her children in great order,’ said Mary. ‘Alice was telling me about it the other day. She had been talking to Mrs. Parker’s servant. I listened to her without any remark, as I don’t think it right to encourage servants’ gossip; they always exaggerate everything. And I dare say children often require to be corrected.’

The children were struck silent as if some ghastly terror had seized them.

Darnell fancied that he heard a queer sort of cry from the house, but could not be quite sure. He turned to the other side, where an elderly, ordinary man with a grey moustache was strolling up and down on the further side of his garden. He caught Darnell’s eye, and Mrs. Darnell looking towards him at the same moment, he very politely raised his tweed cap. Darnell was surprised to see his wife blushing fiercely.

‘Sayce and I often go into the City by the same ‘bus,’ he said, ‘and as it happens we’ve sat next to each other two or three times lately. I believe he’s a traveller for a leather firm in Bermondsey. He struck me as a pleasant man. Haven’t they got rather a good-looking servant?’

‘Alice has spoken to me about her–and the Sayces,’ said Mrs. Darnell. ‘I understand that they are not very well thought of in the neighbourhood. But I must go in and see whether the tea is ready. Alice will be wanting to go out directly.’

Darnell looked after his wife as she walked quickly away. He only dimly understood, but he could see the charm of her figure, the delight of the brown curls clustering about her neck, and he again felt that sense of the scholar confronted by the hieroglyphic. He could not have expressed his emotion, but he wondered whether he would ever find the key, and something told him that before she could speak to him his own lips must be unclosed. She had gone into the house by the back kitchen door, leaving it open, and he heard her speaking to the girl about the water being ‘really boiling.’ He was amazed, almost indignant with himself; but the sound of the words came to his ears as strange, heart-piercing music, tones from another, wonderful sphere. And yet he was her husband, and they had been married nearly a year; and yet, whenever she spoke, he had to listen to the sense of what she said, constraining himself, lest he should believe she was a magic creature, knowing the secrets of immeasurable delight.

He looked out through the leaves of the mulberry tree. Mr. Sayce had disappeared from his view, but he saw the light-blue fume of the cigar that he was smoking floating slowly across the shadowed air. He was wondering at his wife’s manner when Sayce’s name was mentioned, puzzling his head as to what could be amiss in the household of a most respectable personage, when his wife appeared at the dining-room window and called him in to tea. She smiled as he looked up, and he rose hastily and walked in, wondering whether he were not a little ‘queer,’ so strange were the dim emotions and the dimmer impulses that rose within him.

Alice was all shining purple and strong scent, as she brought in the teapot and the jug of hot water. It seemed that a visit to the kitchen had inspired Mrs. Darnell in her turn with a novel plan for disposing of the famous ten pounds. The range had always been a trouble to her, and when sometimes she went into the kitchen, and found, as she said, the fire ‘roaring halfway up the chimney,’ it was in vain that she reproved the maid on the ground of extravagance and waste of coal. Alice was ready to admit the absurdity of making up such an enormous fire merely to bake (they called it ‘roast’) a bit of beef or mutton, and to boil the potatoes and the cabbage; but she was able to show Mrs. Darnell that the fault lay in the defective contrivance of the range, in an oven which ‘would not get hot.’ Even with a chop or a steak it was almost as bad; the heat seemed to escape up the chimney or into the room, and Mary had spoken several times to her husband on the shocking waste of coal, and the cheapest coal procurable was never less than eighteen shillings the ton. Mr. Darnell had written to the landlord, a builder, who had replied in an illiterate but offensive communication, maintaining the excellence of the stove and charging all the faults to the account of ‘your good lady,’ which really implied that the Darnells kept no servant, and that Mrs. Darnell did everything. The range, then, remained, a standing annoyance and expense. Every morning, Alice said, she had the greatest difficulty in getting the fire to light at all, and once lighted it ‘seemed as if it fled right up the chimney.’ Only a few nights before Mrs. Darnell had spoken seriously to her husband about it; she had got Alice to weigh the coals expended in cooking a cottage pie, the dish of the evening, and deducting what remained in the scuttle after the pie was done, it appeared that the wretched thing had consumed nearly twice the proper quantity of fuel.

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