A Fragment of Life – Ie

‘You remember what I said the other night about the range?’ said Mrs. Darnell, as she poured out the tea and watered the leaves. She thought the introduction a good one, for though her husband was a most amiable man, she guessed that he had been just a little hurt by her decision against his furnishing scheme.

‘The range?’ said Darnell. He paused as he helped himself to the marmalade and considered for a moment. ‘No, I don’t recollect. What night was it?’

‘Tuesday. Don’t you remember? You had “overtime,” and didn’t get home till quite late.’

She paused for a moment, blushing slightly; and then began to recapitulate the misdeeds of the range, and the outrageous outlay of coal in the preparation of the cottage pie.

‘Oh, I recollect now. That was the night I thought I heard the nightingale (people say there are nightingales in Bedford Park), and the sky was such a wonderful deep blue.’

He remembered how he had walked from Uxbridge Road Station, where the green ‘bus stopped, and in spite of the fuming kilns under Acton, a delicate odour of the woods and summer fields was mysteriously in the air, and he had fancied that he smelt the red wild roses, drooping from the hedge. As he came to his gate he saw his wife standing in the doorway, with a light in her hand, and he threw his arms violently about her as she welcomed him, and whispered something in her ear, kissing her scented hair. He had felt quite abashed a moment afterwards, and he was afraid that he had frightened her by his nonsense; she seemed trembling and confused. And then she had told him how they had weighed the coal.

‘Yes, I remember now,’ he said. ‘It is a great nuisance, isn’t it? I hate to throw away money like that.’

‘Well, what do you think? Suppose we bought a really good range with aunt’s money? It would save us a lot, and I expect the things would taste much nicer.’

Darnell passed the marmalade, and confessed that the idea was brilliant.

‘It’s much better than mine, Mary,’ he said quite frankly. ‘I am so glad you thought of it. But we must talk it over; it doesn’t do to buy in a hurry. There are so many makes.’

Each had seen ranges which looked miraculous inventions; he in the neighbourhood of the City; she in Oxford Street and Regent Street, on visits to the dentist. They discussed the matter at tea, and afterwards they discussed it walking round and round the garden, in the sweet cool of the evening.

‘They say the “Newcastle” will burn anything, coke even,’ said Mary.

‘But the “Glow” got the gold medal at the Paris Exhibition,’ said Edward.

‘But what about the “Eutopia” Kitchener? Have you seen it at work in Oxford Street?’ said Mary. ‘They say their plan of ventilating the oven is quite unique.’

‘I was in Fleet Street the other day,’ answered Edward, ‘and I was looking at the “Bliss” Patent Stoves. They burn less fuel than any in the market–so the makers declare.’

He put his arm gently round her waist. She did not repel him; she whispered quite softly–‘I think Mrs. Parker is at her window,’ and he drew his arm back slowly.

‘But we will talk it over,’ he said. ‘There is no hurry. I might call at some of the places near the City, and you might do the same thing in Oxford Street and Regent Street and Piccadilly, and we could compare notes.’

Mary was quite pleased with her husband’s good temper. It was so nice of him not to find fault with her plan; ‘He’s so good to me,’ she thought, and that was what she often said to her brother, who did not care much for Darnell. They sat down on the seat under the mulberry, close together, and she let Darnell take her hand, and as she felt his shy, hesitating fingers touch her in the shadow, she pressed them ever so softly, and as he fondled her hand, his breath was on her neck, and she heard his passionate, hesitating voice whisper, ‘My dear, my dear,’ as his lips touched her cheek. She trembled a little, and waited. Darnell kissed her gently on the cheek and drew away his hand, and when he spoke he was almost breathless.

‘We had better go in now,’ he said. ‘There is a heavy dew, and you might catch cold.’

A warm, scented gale came to them from beyond the walls. He longed to ask her to stay out with him all night beneath the tree, that they might whisper to one another, that the scent of her hair might inebriate him, that he might feel her dress still brushing against his ankles. But he could not find the words, and it was absurd, and she was so gentle that she would do whatever he asked, however foolish it might be, just because he asked her. He was not worthy to kiss her lips; he bent down and kissed her silk bodice, and again he felt that she trembled, and he was ashamed, fearing that he had frightened her.

They went slowly into the house, side by side, and Darnell lit the gas in the drawing-room, where they always sat on Sunday evenings. Mrs. Darnell felt a little tired and lay down on the sofa, and Darnell took the arm-chair opposite. For a while they were silent, and then Darnell said suddenly–‘What’s wrong with the Sayces? You seemed to think there was something a little strange about them. Their maid looks quite quiet.’

‘Oh, I don’t know that one ought to pay any attention to servants’ gossip. They’re not always very truthful.’

‘It was Alice told you, wasn’t it?’

‘Yes. She was speaking to me the other day, when I was in the kitchen in the afternoon.’

‘But what was it?’

‘Oh, I’d rather not tell you, Edward. It’s not pleasant. I scolded Alice for repeating it to me.’

Darnell got up and took a small, frail chair near the sofa. ‘Tell me,’ he said again, with an odd perversity. He did not really care to hear about the household next door, but he remembered how his wife’s cheeks flushed in the afternoon, and now he was looking at her eyes.

‘Oh, I really couldn’t tell you, dear. I should feel ashamed.’

‘But you’re my wife.’

‘Yes, but it doesn’t make any difference. A woman doesn’t like to talk about such things.’

Darnell bent his head down. His heart was beating; he put his ear to her mouth and said, ‘Whisper.’

Mary drew his head down still lower with her gentle hand, and her cheeks burned as she whispered–‘Alice says that–upstairs–they have only–one room furnished. The maid told her–herself.’

With an unconscious gesture she pressed his head to her breast, and he in turn was bending her red lips to his own, when a violent jangle clamoured through the silent house. They sat up, and Mrs. Darnell went hurriedly to the door. ‘That’s Alice,’ she said. ‘She is always in in time. It has only just struck ten.’

Darnell shivered with annoyance. His lips, he knew, had almost been opened. Mary’s pretty handkerchief, delicately scented from a little flagon that a school friend had given her, lay on the floor, and he picked it up, and kissed it, and hid it away.

The question of the range occupied them all through June and far into July. Mrs. Darnell took every opportunity of going to the West End and investigating the capacity of the latest makes, gravely viewing the new improvements and hearing what the shopmen had to say; while Darnell, as he said, ‘kept his eyes open’ about the City. They accumulated quite a literature of the subject, bringing away illustrated pamphlets, and in the evenings it was an amusement to look at the pictures. They viewed with reverence and interest the drawings of great ranges for hotels and public institutions, mighty contrivances furnished with a series of ovens each for a different use, with wonderful apparatus for grilling, with batteries of accessories which seemed to invest the cook almost with the dignity of a chief engineer. But when, in one of the lists, they encountered the images of little toy ‘cottage’ ranges, for four pounds, and even for three pounds ten, they grew scornful, on the strength of the eight or ten pound article which they meant to purchase–when the merits of the divers patents had been thoroughly thrashed out.

The ‘Raven’ was for a long time Mary’s favourite. It promised the utmost economy with the highest efficiency, and many times they were on the point of giving the order. But the ‘Glow’ seemed equally seductive, and it was only £8. 5s. as compared with £9. 7s. 6d., and though the ‘Raven’ was supplied to the Royal Kitchen, the ‘Glow’ could show more fervent testimonials from continental potentates.

It seemed a debate without end, and it endured day after day till that morning, when Darnell woke from the dream of the ancient wood, of the fountains rising into grey vapour beneath the heat of the sun. As he dressed, an idea struck him, and he brought it as a shock to the hurried breakfast, disturbed by the thought of the City ‘bus which passed the corner of the street at 9.15.

‘I’ve got an improvement on your plan, Mary,’ he said, with triumph. ‘Look at that,’ and he flung a little book on the table.

He laughed. ‘It beats your notion all to fits. After all, the great expense is the coal. It’s not the stove–at least that’s not the real mischief. It’s the coal is so dear. And here you are. Look at those oil stoves. They don’t burn any coal, but the cheapest fuel in the world–oil; and for two pounds ten you can get a range that will do everything you want.’

‘Give me the book,’ said Mary, ‘and we will talk it over in the evening, when you come home. Must you be going?’

Darnell cast an anxious glance at the clock. ‘Good-bye,’ and they kissed each other seriously and dutifully, and Mary’s eyes made Darnell think of those lonely water-pools, hidden in the shadow of the ancient woods.

So, day after day, he lived in the grey phantasmal world, akin to death, that has, somehow, with most of us, made good its claim to be called life. To Darnell the true life would have seemed madness, and when, now and again, the shadows and vague images reflected from its splendour fell across his path, he was afraid, and took refuge in what he would have called the sane ‘reality’ of common and usual incidents and interests. His absurdity was, perhaps, the more evident, inasmuch as ‘reality’ for him was a matter of kitchen ranges, of saving a few shillings; but in truth the folly would have been greater if it had been concerned with racing stables, steam yachts, and the spending of many thousand pounds.

But so went forth Darnell, day by day, strangely mistaking death for life, madness for sanity, and purposeless and wandering phantoms for true beings. He was sincerely of opinion that he was a City clerk, living in Shepherd’s Bush–having forgotten the mysteries and the far-shining glories of the kingdom which was his by legitimate inheritance.

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