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THEY AND I (chapter2)

2006-09-08 21:22

    CHAPTER II

    "Do you mean, Governor, that you have actually bought the house?"

    demanded Dick, "or are we only talking about it?"

    "This time, Dick," I answered, "I have done it."

    Dick looked serious. "Is it what you wanted?" he asked.

    "No, Dick," I replied, "it is not what I wanted. I wanted an old-

    fashioned, picturesque, rambling sort of a place, all gables and ivy and oriel windows."

    "You are mixing things up," Dick interrupted, "gables and oriel windows don't go together."

    "I beg your pardon, Dick," I corrected him, "in the house I wanted, they do. It is the style of house you find in the Christmas number. I have never seen it anywhere else, but I took a fancy to it from the first. It is not too far from the church, and it lights up well at night. 'One of these days,' I used to say to myself when a boy, 'I'll be a clever man and live in a house just like that.' It was my dream."

    "And what is this place like?" demanded Robin, "this place you have bought."

    "The agent," I explained, "claims for it that it is capable of improvement. I asked him to what school of architecture he would say it belonged; he said he thought that it must have been a local school, and pointed out——what seems to be the truth——that nowadays they do not build such houses."

    "Near to the river?" demanded Dick.

    "Well, by the road," I answered, "I daresay it may be a couple of miles."

    "And by the shortest way?" questioned Dick.

    "That is the shortest way," I explained; "there's a prettier way through

    the woods, but that is about three miles and a half."

    "But we had decided it was to be near the river," said Robin.

    "We also decided," I replied, "that it was to be on sandy soil, with a

    south-west aspect. Only one thing in this house has a south-west aspect, and that's the back door. I asked the agent about the sand. He advised me, if I wanted it in any quantity, to get an estimate from the Railway Company. I wanted it on a hill. It is on a hill, with a bigger hill in front of it. I didn't want that other hill. I wanted an uninterrupted view of the southern half of England. I wanted to take people out on the step, and cram them with stories about our being able on clear days to see the Bristol Channel. They might not have believed me, but without that hill I could have stuck to it, and they could not have been certain——not dead certain——I was lying.

    "Personally, I should have liked a house where something had happened. I should have liked, myself, a blood-stain——not a fussy bloodstain, a neat unobtrusive blood-stain that would have been content, most of its time, to remain hidden under the mat, shown only occasionally as a treat to visitors. I had hopes even of a ghost. I don't mean one of those noisy ghosts that doesn't seem to know it is dead. A lady ghost would have been my fancy, a gentle ghost with quiet, pretty ways. This house-well, it is such a sensible-looking house, that is my chief objection to it. It has got an echo. If you go to the end of the garden and shout at it very loudly, it answers you back. This is the only bit of fun you can have with it. Even then it answers you in such a tone you feel it thinks the whole thing silly——is doing it merely to humour you. It is one of those houses that always seems to be thinking of its rates and taxes."

    "Any reason at all for your having bought it?" asked Dick.

    "Yes, Dick," I answered. "We are all of us tired of this suburb. We want to live in the country and be good. To live in the country with any comfort it is necessary to have a house there. This being admitted, it follows we must either build a house or buy one. I would rather not build a house. Talboys built himself a house. You know Talboys. When I first met him, before he started building, he was a cheerful soul with a kindly word for everyone. The builder assures him that in another twenty years, when the colour has had time to tone down, his house will be a picture. At present it makes him bilious, the mere sight of it. Year by year, they tell him, as the dampness wears itself away, he will suffer less and less from rheumatism, ague, and lumbago. He has a hedge round the garden; it is eighteen inches high. To keep the boys out he has put up barbed- wire fencing. But wire fencing affords no real privacy. When the Talboys are taking coffee on the lawn, there is generally a crowd from the village watching them. There are trees in the garden; you know they are trees——there is a label tied to each one telling you what sort of tree it is. For the moment there is a similarity about them. Thirty years hence, Talboys estimates, they will afford him shade and comfort; but by that time he hopes to be dead. I want a house that has got over all its troubles; I don't want to spend the rest of my life bringing up a young and inexperienced house."

    "But why this particular house?" urged Robin, "if, as you say, it is not the house you wanted."

    "Because, my dear girl," I answered, "it is less unlike the house I wanted than other houses I have seen. When we are young we make up our minds to try and get what we want; when we have arrived at years of discretion we decide to try and want what we can get. It saves time. During the last two years I have seen about sixty houses, and out of the lot there was only one that was really the house I wanted. Hitherto I have kept the story to myself. Even now, thinking about it irritates me. It was not an agent who told me of it. I met a man by chance in a railway carriage. He had a black eye. If ever I meet him again I'll give him another. He accounted for it by explaining that he had had trouble with a golf ball, and at the time I believed him. I mentioned to him in conversation I was looking for a house. He described this place to me, and it seemed to me hours before the train stopped at a station. When it did I got out and took the next train back. I did not even wait for lunch. I had my bicycle with me, and I went straight there. It was——well, it was the house I wanted. If it had vanished suddenly, and I had found myself in bed, the whole thing would have seemed more reasonable. The proprietor opened the door to me himself. He had the bearing of a retired military man. It was afterwards I learnt he was the proprietor.

    "I said, 'Good afternoon; if it is not troubling you, I would like to look over the house.' We were standing in the oak-panelled hall. I noticed the carved staircase about which the man in the train had told me, also the Tudor fireplaces. That is all I had time to notice. The next moment I was lying on my back in the middle of the gravel with the door shut. looked up. I saw the old maniac's head sticking out of a little window. It was an evil face. He had a gun in his hand.

    "'I'm going to count twenty,' he said. 'If you are not the other side of the gate by then, I shoot.'

    "I ran over the figures myself on my way to the gate. I made it eighteen.

    "I had an hour to wait for the train. I talked the matter over with the station-master.

    "'Yes,' he said, 'there'll be trouble up there one of these days.'

    "I said, 'It seems to me to have begun.'

    "He said, 'It's the Indian sun. It gets into their heads. We have one or two in the neighbourhood. They are quiet enough till something happens.'

    "'If I'd been two seconds longer,' I said, 'I believe he'd have done it.'

    "'It's a taking house,' said the station-master; 'not too big and not too little. It's the sort of house people seem to be looking for.'

    "'I don't envy,' I said, 'the next person that finds it.'

    "'He settled himself down here,' said the station-master, 'about ten years ago. Since then, if one person has offered to take the house off his hands, I suppose a thousand have. At first he would laugh at them goodtemperedly——explain to them that his idea was to live there himself, in peace and quietness, till he died. Two out of every three of them would express their willingness to wait for that, and suggest some arrangement by which they might enter into possession, say, a week after the funeral. The last few months it has been worse than ever. I reckon you're about the eighth that has been up there this week, and to-day only Thursday. There's something to be said, you know, for the old man.'"

    "And did he," asked Dick——"did he shoot the next party that came along?"

    "Don't be so silly, Dick," said Robin; "it's a story. Tell us another, Pa."

    "I don't know what you mean, Robina, by a story," I said. "If you mean to imply——"

    Robina said she didn't; but I know quite well she did. Because I am an author, and have to tell stories for my living, people think I don't know any truth. It is vexing enough to be doubted when one is exaggerating; to have sneers flung at one by one's own kith and kin when one is struggling to confine oneself to bald, bare narrative—— well, where is the inducement to be truthful? There are times when I almost say to myself that I will never tell the truth again.

    "As it happens," I said, "the story is true, in many places. I pass over your indifference to the risk I ran; though a nice girl at the point where the gun was mentioned would have expressed alarm. Anyhow, at the end you might have said something more sympathetic than merely, 'Tell us another.' He did not shoot the next party that arrived, for the reason that the very next day his wife, alarmed at what had happened, went up to London and consulted an expert——none too soon, as it turned out. The poor old fellow died six months later in a private lunatic asylum; I had it from the station-master on passing through the junction again this spring. The house fell into the possession of his nephew, who is living in it now. He is a youngish man with a large family, and people have learnt that the place is not for sale. It seems to me rather a sad story. The Indian sun, as the station-master thinks, may have started the trouble; but the end was undoubtedly hastened by the annoyance to which the unfortunate gentleman had been subjected; and I myself might have been shot. The only thing that comforts me is thinking of that fool's black eye——the fool that sent me there."

    "And none of the other houses," suggested Dick, "were any good at all?"

    "There were drawbacks, Dick," I explained. "There was a house in Essex; it was one of the first your mother and I inspected. I nearly shed tears of joy when I read the advertisement. It had once been a priory. Queen Elizabeth had slept there on her way to Greenwich. A photograph of the house accompanied the advertisement. I should not have believed the thing had it been a picture. It was under twelve miles from Charing Cross. The owner, it was stated, was open to offers." "All humbug, I suppose," suggested Dick.

    "The advertisement, if anything," I replied, "had under-estimated the attractiveness of that house. All I blame the advertisement for is that it did not mention other things. It did not mention, for instance, that since Queen Elizabeth's time the neighbourhood had changed. It did not mention that the entrance was between a public- house one side of the gate and a fried-fish shop on the other; that the Great Eastern Railway-Company had established a goods depot at the bottom of the garden; that the drawing-room windows looked out on extensive chemical works, and the dining-room windows, which were round the corner, on a stonemason's yard. The house itself was a dream."

    "But what is the sense of it?" demanded Dick. "What do house agents think is the good of it? Do they think people likely to take a house after reading the advertisement without ever going to see it?"

    "I asked an agent once that very question," I replied. "He said they did it first and foremost to keep up the spirits of the owner——the man who wanted to sell the house. He said that when a man was trying to part with a house he had to listen to so much abuse of it from people who came to see it that if somebody did not stick up for the house——say all that could be said for it, and gloss over its defects- -he would end by becoming so ashamed of it he would want to give it away, or blow it up with dynamite. He said that reading the advertisement in the agent's catalogue was the only thing that reconciled him to being the owner of the house. He said one client of his had been trying to sell his house for years——until one day in the office he read by chance the agent's description of it. Upon which he went straight home, took down the board, and has lived there contentedly ever since. From that point of view there is reason in the system; but for the house-hunter it works badly.

    "One agent sent me a day's journey to see a house standing in the middle of a brickfield, with a view of the Grand Junction Canal. I asked him where was the river he had mentioned. He explained it was the other side of the canal, but on a lower level; that was the only reason why from the house you couldn't see it. I asked him for his picturesque scenery. He explained it was farther on, round the bend. He seemed to think me unreasonable, expecting to find everything I wanted just outside the front-door. He suggested my shutting out the brickfield——if I didn't like the brickfield——with trees. He suggested the eucalyptus-tree. He said it was a rapid grower. He also told me that it yielded gum.

    "Another house I travelled down into Dorsetshire to see. It contained, according to the advertisement, 'perhaps the most perfect specimen of Norman arch extant in Southern England.' It was to be found mentioned in Dugdale, and dated from the thirteenth century. I don't quite know what I expected. I argued to myself that there must have been ruffians of only moderate means even in those days. Here and there some robber baron who had struck a poor line of country would have had to be content with a homely little castle. A few such, hidden away in unfrequented districts, had escaped destruction. More civilised descendants had adapted them to later requirements. I had in my mind, before the train reached Dorchester, something between a miniature Tower of London and a mediaeval edition of Ann Hathaway's cottage at Stratford. I pictured dungeons and a drawbridge, perhaps a secret passage. Lamchick has a secret passage, leading from behind a sort of portrait in the dining-room to the back of the kitchen chimney. They use it for a linen closet. It seems to me a pity. Of course originally it went on farther. The vicar, who is a bit of an antiquarian, believes it comes out somewhere in the churchyard. I tell Lamchick he ought to have it opened up, but his wife doesn't want it touched. She seems to think it just right as it is. I have always had a fancy for a secret passage. I decided I would have the drawbridge repaired and made practicable. Flanked on each side with flowers in tubs, it would have been a novel and picturesque approach."

    "Was there a drawbridge?" asked Dick.

    "There was no drawbridge," I explained. "The entrance to the house was through what the caretaker called the conservatory. It was not the sort of house that goes with a drawbridge."

    "Then what about the Norman arches?" argued Dick.

    "Not arches," I corrected him; "Arch. The Norman arch was downstairs in the kitchen. It was the kitchen, that had been built in the thirteenth century——and had not had much done to it since, apparently. Originally, I should say, it had been the torture chamber; it gave you that idea. I think your mother would have raised objections to the kitchen-anyhow, when she came to think of the cook. It would have been necessary to put it to the woman before engaging her:

    "'You don't mind cooking in a dungeon in the dark, do you?'

    "Some cooks would. The rest of the house was what I should describe as present-day mixed style. The last tenant but one had thrown out a bathroom in corrugated iron."

    "Then there was a house in Berkshire that I took your mother to see, with a trout stream running through the grounds. I imagined myself going out after lunch, catching trout for dinner; inviting swagger friends down to 'my little place in Berkshire' for a few days' trout- fishing. There is a man I once knew who is now a baronet. He used to be keen on fishing. I thought maybe I'd get him. It would have looked well in the Literary Gossip column: 'Among the other distinguished guests'——you know the sort of thing. I had the paragraph already in my mind. The wonder is I didn't buy a rod."

    "Wasn't there any trout stream?" questioned Robin.

    "There was a stream," I answered; "if anything, too much stream. The stream was the first thing your mother noticed. She noticed it a quarter of an hour before we came to it——before we knew it was the stream. We drove back to the town, and she bought a smelling-bottle, the larger size.

    "It gave your mother a headache, that stream, and made me mad. The agent's office was opposite the station. I allowed myself half an hour on my way back to tell him what I thought of him, and then I missed the train. I could have got it in if he had let me talk all the time, but he would interrupt. He said it was the people at the paper-mill——that he had spoken to them about it more than once; he seemed to think sympathy was all I wanted. He assured me, on his word as a house-agent, that it had once been a trout stream. The fact was historical. Isaac Walton had fished there——that was prior to the paper-mill. He thought a collection of trout, male and female, might be bought and placed in it; preference being given to some hardy breed of trout, accustomed to roughing it. I told him I wasn't looking for a place where I could play at being Noah; and left him, as I explained to him, with the intention of going straight to my solicitors and instituting proceedings against him for talking like a fool; and he put on his hat and went across to his solicitors to commence proceedings against me for libel.

    "I suppose that, with myself, he thought better of it in the end. But I'm tired of having my life turned into one perpetual first of April. This house that I have bought is not my heart's desire, but about it there are possibilities. We will put in lattice windows, and fuss-up the chimneys. Maybe we will let in a tablet over the front-door, with a date——always looks well: it is a picturesque figure, the old-fashioned five. By the time we have done with it—— for all practical purposes——it will be a Tudor manor-house. I have always wanted an old Tudor manor-house. There is no reason, so far as I can see, why there should not be stories connected with this house. Why should not we have a room in which Somebody once slept? We won't have Queen Elizabeth. I'm tired of Queen Elizabeth. Besides, I don't believe she'd have been nice. Why not Queen Anne? A quiet, gentle old lady, from all accounts, who would not have given trouble. Or, better still, Shakespeare. He was constantly to and fro between London and Stratford. It would not have been so very much out of his way. 'The room where Shakespeare slept!' Why, it's a new idea. Nobody ever seems to have thought of Shakespeare. There is the four-post bedstead. Your mother never liked it. She will insist, it harbours things. We might hang the wall with scenes from his plays, and have a bust of the old gentleman himself over the door. If I'm left alone and not worried, I'll probably end by believing that he really did sleep there."

    "What about cupboards?" suggested Dick. "The Little Mother will clamour for cupboards."

    It is unexplainable, the average woman's passion for cupboards. In heaven, her first request, I am sure, is always, "Can I have a cupboard?" She would keep her husband and children in cupboards if she had her way: that would be her idea of the perfect home, everybody wrapped up with a piece of camphor in his or her own proper cupboard. I knew a woman once who was happy——for a woman. She lived in a house with twenty-nine cupboards: I think it must have been built by a woman. They were spacious cupboards, many of them, with doors in no way different from other doors. Visitors would wish each other good-night and disappear with their candles into cupboards, staggering out backwards the next moment, looking scared. One poor gentleman, this woman's husband told me, having to go downstairs again for something he had forgotten, and unable on his return to strike anything else but cupboards, lost heart and finished up the night in a cupboard. At breakfast-time guests would hurry down, and burst open cupboard doors with a cheery "Goodmorning." When that woman was out, nobody in that house ever knew where anything was; and when she came home she herself only knew where it ought to have been. Yet once, when one of those twenty-nine cupboards had to be cleared out temporarily for repairs, she never smiled, her husband told me, for more than three weeks——not till the workmen were out of the house, and that cupboard in working order again. She said it was so confusing, having nowhere to put her things.

    The average woman does not want a house, in the ordinary sense of the word. What she wants is something made by a genii. You have found, as you think, the ideal house. You show her the Adams fireplace in the drawing-room. You tap the wainscoting of the hall with your umbrella: "Oak," you impress upon her, "all oak." You draw her attention to the view: you tell her the local legend. By fixing her head against the window-pane she can see the tree on which the man was hanged. You dwell upon the sundial; you mention for a second time the Adams fireplace.

    "It's all very nice," she answers, "but where are the children going to sleep?"

    It is so disheartening.

    If it isn't the children, it's the water. She wants water——wants to know where it comes from. You show her where it comes from.

    "What, out of that nasty place!" she exclaims.

    She is equally dissatisfied whether it be drawn from a well, or whether it be water that has fallen from heaven and been stored in tanks. She has no faith in Nature's water. A woman never believes that water can be good that does not come from a water-works. Her idea appears to be that the Company makes it fresh every morning from some old family recipe.

    If you do succeed in reconciling her to the water, then she feels sure that the chimneys smoke; they look as if they smoked. Why——as you tell her——the chimneys are the best part of the house. You take her outside and make her look at them. They are genuine sixteenth- century chimneys, with carving on them. They couldn't smoke. They wouldn't do anything so inartistic. She says she only hopes you are right, and suggests cowls, if they do.

    After that she wants to see the kitchen——where's the kitchen? You don't know where it is. You didn't bother about the kitchen. There must be a kitchen, of course. You proceed to search for the kitchen. When you find it she is worried because it is the opposite end of the house to the dining-room. You point out to her the advantage of being away from the smell of the cooking. At that she gets personal: tells you that you are the first to grumble when the dinner is cold; and in her madness accuses the whole male sex of being impractical. The mere sight of an empty house makes a woman fretful.

    Of course the stove is wrong. The kitchen stove always is wrong. You promise she shall have a new one. Six months later she will want the old one back again: but it would be cruel to tell her this. The promise of that new stove comforts her. The woman never loses hope that one day it will come——the all-satisfying kitchen stove, the stove of her girlish dreams.

    The question of the stove settled, you imagine you have silenced all opposition. At once she begins to talk about things that nobody but a woman or a sanitary inspector can talk about without blushing.

    It calls for tact, getting a woman into a new house. She is nervous, suspicious.

    "I am glad, my dear Dick," I answered; "that you have mentioned cupboards. It is with cupboards that I am hoping to lure your mother. The cupboards, from her point of view, will be the one bright spot; there are fourteen of them. I am trusting to cupboards to tide me over many things. I shall want you to come with me, Dick. Whenever your mother begins a sentence with: 'But now to be practical, dear,' I want you to murmur something about cupboards——not irritatingly as if it had been prearranged: have a little gumption."

    "Will there be room for a tennis court?" demanded Dick.

    "An excellent tennis court already exists," I informed him. "I have also purchased the adjoining paddock. We shall be able to keep our own cow. Maybe we'll breed horses."

    "We might have a croquet lawn," suggested Robin.

    "We might easily have a croquet lawn," I agreed. "On a full-sized lawn I believe Veronica might be taught to play. There are natures that demand space. On a full-sized lawn, protected by a stout iron border, less time might be wasted exploring the surrounding scenery for Veronica's lost ball."

    "No chance of a golf links anywhere in the neighbourhood?" feared Dick.

    "I am not so sure," I answered. "Barely a mile away there is a pretty piece of gorse land that appears to be no good to anyone. I daresay for a reasonable offer——"

    "I say, when will this show be ready?" interrupted Dick.

    "I propose beginning the alterations at once," I explained. "By luck there happens to be a gamekeeper's cottage vacant and within distance. The agent is going to get me the use of it for a year——a primitive little place, but charmingly situate on the edge of a wood. I shall furnish a couple of rooms; and for part of every week I shall make a point of being down there, superintending. I have always been considered good at superintending. My poor father used to say it was the only work I seemed to take an interest in. By being on the spot to hurry everybody on I hope to have the 'show,' as you term it, ready by the spring."

    "I shall never marry," said Robin.

    "Don't be so easily discouraged," advised Dick; "you are still young."

    "I don't ever want to get married," continued Robin. "I should only quarrel with my husband, if I did. And Dick will never do anything—— not with his head." "Forgive me if I am dull," I pleaded, "but what is the connection between this house, your quarrels with your husband if you ever get one, and Dick's head?"

    By way of explanation, Robin sprang to the ground, and before he could stop her had flung her arms around Dick's neck.

    "We can't help it, Dick dear," she told him. "Clever parents always have duffing children. But we'll be of some use in the world after all, you and I."

    The idea was that Dick, when he had finished failing in examinations, should go out to Canada and start a farm, taking Robin with him. They would breed cattle, and gallop over the prairies, and camp out in the primeval forest, and slide about on snow-shoes, and carry canoes on their backs, and shoot rapids, and stalk things——so far as I could gather, have a sort of everlasting Buffalo-Bill's show all to themselves. How and when the farm work was to get itself done was not at all clear. The Little Mother and myself were to end our days with them. We were to sit about in the sun for a time, and then pass peacefully away. Robin shed a few tears at this point, but regained her spirits, thinking of Veronica, who was to be lured out on a visit and married to some true-hearted yeoman: which is not at present Veronica's ambition. Veronica's conviction is that she would look well in a coronet: her own idea is something in the ducal line. Robina talked for about ten minutes. By the time she had done she had persuaded Dick that life in the backwoods of Canada had been his dream from infancy. She is that sort of girl.

    I tried talking reason, but talking to Robin when she has got a notion in her head is like trying to fix a halter on a two-year-old colt. This tumbledown, six-roomed cottage was to be the saving of the family. An ecstatic look transfigured Robina's face even as she spoke of it. You might have fancied it a shrine. Robina would do the cooking. Robina would rise early and milk the cow, and gather the morning egg. We would lead the simple life, learn to fend for ourselves. It would be so good for Veronica. The higher education could wait; let the higher ideals have a chance. Veronica would make the beds, dust the rooms. In the evening Veronica, her little basket by her side, would sit and sew while I talked, telling them things, and Robina moved softly to and fro about her work, the household fairy. The Little Mother, whenever strong enough, would come to us. We would hover round her, tending her with loving hands. The English farmer must know something, in spite of all that is said. Dick could arrange for lessons in practical farming. She did not say it crudely; but hinted that, surrounded by example, even I might come to take an interest in honest labour, might end by learning to do something useful.

    Robina talked, I should say, for a quarter of an hour. By the time she had done, it appeared to me rather a beautiful idea. Dick's vacation had just commenced. For the next three months there would be nothing else for him to do but——to employ his own expressive phrase——"rot round." In any event, it would be keeping him out of mischief. Veronica's governess was leaving. Veronica's governess generally does leave at the end of about a year. I think sometimes of advertising for a lady without a conscience. At the end of a year, they explain to me that their conscience will not allow them to remain longer; they do not feel they are earning their salary. It is not that the child is not a dear child, it is not that she is stupid. Simply it is——as a German lady to whom Dick had been giving what he called finishing lessons in English, once put it——that she does not seem to be "taking any." Her mother's idea is that it is "sinking in." Perhaps if we allowed Veronica to lie fallow for awhile, something might show itself. Robina, speaking for herself, held that a period of quiet usefulness, away from the society of other silly girls and sillier boys, would result in her becoming a sensible woman. It is not often that Robina's yearnings take this direction: to thwart them, when they did, seemed wrong.

    We had some difficulty with the Little Mother. That these three babies of hers will ever be men and women capable of running a six-roomed cottage appears to the Little Mother in the light of a fantastic dream. I explained to her that I should be there, at all events for two or three days in every week, to give an eye to things. Even that did not content her. She gave way eventually on Robina's solemn undertaking that she should be telegraphed for the first time Veronica coughed.

    On Monday we packed a one-horse van with what we deemed essential. Dick and Robina rode their bicycles. Veronica, supported by assorted bedding, made herself comfortable upon the tailboard.followed down by train on the Wednesday afternoon.

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