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Eliza
by Barry Pain
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* * * * *

I was, perhaps, rather unfortunate in the evening when I brought the book home. Something may have occurred to put Eliza out; she was inclined to be quite sharp with me. I asked her, gaily, in the passage when I came in, "Can you tell me, dearest, the difference between a camel and a corkscrew? If not, here is a little volume which will inform you."

"Oh, yes! One's used for drawing corks, and the other isn't. You needn't have wasted sixpence on a rubbishy book to tell me that."

"But your answer is not the correct one," I replied. "The correct answer contains a joke. Think again."

"Well, I can't, then. I've got the wash to count."

I said that the wash could wait, but she would not appear to hear me, and went off up-stairs.

* * * * *

At supper I took occasion to say:

"You answered me very tartly when I asked you this afternoon for the difference between a camel and a corkscrew. Perhaps you would not have done so had you known that I bought that book with the intention of sending it as a present to your mother."

"Do you think ma would care about it?"

"I think it would cheer her lonely hours. There are upwards of a thousand conundrums in the book. I have only read twelve, but I found them all exceedingly amusing, and, at the same time, perfectly refined."

"Well, I don't see the good of them."

"They are an intellectual exercise, if you try to guess the right answer."

"I don't believe anybody ever did or ever will guess the right answer."

"If I had time," I said, "I believe I could generally think out a witty answer myself. I do not want to boast, but I believe so."

"Very well, then," said Eliza, snatching up the book and opening it at random, "here's one for you. 'If a lady slipped down the steps of St. Paul's Cathedral, what would she say?' Give me the answer to that."

"I will try to," I replied.

Now, just at the moment when Eliza put the question I felt that I had really got the answer, and then it seemed to pass away from me. Later in the evening I was certainly on the right track, when Eliza dropped her scissors, and the noise again put me off. I spent a very poor night; the answer kept sort of coming and going. Just as I was dropping off to sleep, I seemed to have thought of the answer, and then I would wake up to be sure of it, and find it had slipped me again.

As I was leaving the office, in the evening, after thinking till my head ached without arriving at any result, I put the question to one of our clerks. I thought he might possibly know.

"No," he said, "I don't know what a lady would say if she slipped down those steps. I could make a fair guess at what a man would say, if that's any good to you." Of course it was not.

So, on my return home, I told Eliza that I had not had enough time to spare to think of the answer, and I should be glad to know where she had put the book.

"Oh, I sent that to mother!" she said. "I thought you wanted it sent."

"You might have waited until you knew whether I had finished with it. But, however, what was the answer to that silly riddle?"

"The one about St. Paul's Cathedral? That wasn't in the book at all. I made up the question out of my own head for fun."

"Then," I replied, "all I can say is, that your idea of fun is not mine. It seems to me to be acting a lie. It was not a conundrum at all."

"It would have been if you could have thought of an answer."

"Say no more," I replied, coldly. "I prefer to drop the subject."



THE INK

The ink-pot contained a shallow sediment, with short hairs, grit, and a little moisture in it. It came out on the pen in chunks. When I had spoiled the second postcard, Eliza said I was not to talk like that.

"Very well, then," I said, "why don't you have the ink-pot refilled? I'm not made of postcards, and I hate waste."

She replied that anybody would think I was made of something to hear me talk. I thought I had never heard a poorer retort, and told her so. I did not stay to argue it further, as I had to be off to the city. On my return I found the ink-pot full. "This," I thought to myself, "is very nice of Eliza." I had a letter I wanted to write, and sat down to it.

I wrote one word, and it came out a delicate pale gray. I called Eliza at once. I was never quieter in my manner, and it was absurd of her to say that I needn't howl the house down.

"We will not discuss that," I replied. "Just now I sat down to write a letter——"

"What do you want to write letters for now? You might just as well have done them at the office."

I shrugged my shoulders in a Continental manner. "You are probably not aware that I was writing to your own mother. She has so few pleasures. If you do not feel rebuked now——"

"I don't think mamma will lend you any more if you do write."

"We will not enter into that. Why did you fill the ink-pot with water?"

"I didn't."

"Then who did?"

"Nobody did. I didn't think of it until tea-time, and then—well, the tea was there."

I once read a story where a man laughed a low, mirthless laugh. The laugh came to me quite naturally on this occasion. "Say no more," I said. "This is contemptible. Now I forbid you to get the ink—I will get it myself."

* * * * *

On the following night she asked me if I had bought that ink. I replied, "No, Eliza; it has been an exceptionally busy day, and I have not had the time."

"I thought you had forgotten it, perhaps."

"I supposed you would say that," I said. "In you it does not surprise me."

* * * * *

A week later Eliza said that she wanted to do her accounts. "I am glad of that," I said. "Now you will know the misery of living without ink in the house."

"No, I sha'n't," she said, "because I always do my accounts in pencil."

"About three months ago I asked you to fill that ink-pot with ink. Why is it not done?"

"Because you also definitely forbade me to get any ink to fill it with. And you said you'd get it yourself. And it wasn't three months ago."

"I always knew you could not argue, Eliza," I replied. "But I am sorry to see that your memory is failing you as well."

* * * * *

On the next day I bought a penny bottle of ink and left it behind me in an omnibus. There was another bottle (this must have been a week later) which I bought, but dropped on the pavement, where it broke. I did not mention these things to Eliza, but I asked her how much longer she was going to cast a shade over our married life by neglecting to fill the ink-pot.

"Why," she said, "that has been done days and days ago! How can you be so unjust?"

* * * * *

It was as she had said. I made up my mind at once to write to Eliza's mother—who, rightly or wrongly, considers that I have a talent for letter-writing. I felt happier now than I had done for some time, and made up my mind to tell Eliza that I had forgiven her. I wrote a long, cheerful letter to her mother, and thought I would show it to Eliza before I posted it. I called up-stairs to her, "Come down, darling, and see what I've done."

Then I sat down again, and knocked the ink-pot over. The ink covered the letter, the table, my clothes, and the carpet; a black stream of it wandered away looking for something else to spoil.

Then Eliza came down and saw what I had done. To this day she cannot see that it was partly her own fault. The bottle, of course, was too full.



THE PUBLIC SCANDAL

I am not a landlord. It suits my purpose better, and is in every way more convenient, to rent a small house on a yearly agreement. But if I were a landlord, I would not allow any tenant of mine to do anything that tended to undermine and honeycomb the gentility of the district. I should take a very short method with such a tenant. I should say to him or her: "Now, then, either this stops, or you go out this instant." That would settle it. However, I am not a landlord.

Even as a tenant I take a very natural interest in the district in which I live. I chose the district carefully, because it was residential, and not commercial. The houses are not very large, and they might be more solidly built, but they are not shops. They have electric bells, and small strips of garden, and a generally genteel appearance. Two of the houses in Arthur Street are occupied by piano-tuners, and bear brass plates. I do not object to that. Piano-tuning is a profession, and I suppose that, in a way, I should be considered a professional man myself. Nor do I object to the letting of apartments, as long as it is done modestly, and without large, vulgar notice-boards. But the general tone of the district is good, and I do most strongly object to anything which would tend to lower it.

* * * * *

It was, as far as I remember, on the Tuesday evening that Eliza rather lost her temper about the hairpins, and said that if I kept on taking them and taking them she did not see how she was to do her hair at all.

This seemed to me rather unjust. I had not taken the hairpins for my own pleasure. The fact is that the waste-pipe from the kitchen sink frequently gets blocked, and a hairpin will often do it when nothing else will. I replied coldly, but without temper, that in future I would have hairpins of my own.

She said: "What nonsense!"

At this I rose, and went up-stairs to bed.

I think that most people who know me know that I am a man of my word. On the following morning, before breakfast, I went into the High Street to buy a pennyworth of hairpins. The short cut from our road into the High Street is down Bloodstone Terrace.

It was in Bloodstone Terrace that I witnessed a sight which pained and surprised me very much. It disgusted me. It was a disgrace to the district, and amounted to a public scandal. St. Augustine's—which is the third house in the terrace—had taken in washing, and not only had taken in washing, but were using their front garden as a drying-ground! An offensive thing of that kind makes my blood boil.

* * * * *

"Eliza," I said, as I brushed my hat preparatory to leaving for the city, "I intend to write to Mr. Hamilton to-day."

"Have you got the money, then?" Eliza asked, eagerly.

"If you refer to last quarter's rent, I do not mean to forward it immediately. A certain amount of credit is usual between landlord and tenant. An established firm of agents like Hamilton & Bland must know that."

"Yesterday was the third time they've written for the money, anyhow, and you can say what you like. What are you writing for, then?"

"I have a complaint to make."

"Well, I wouldn't make any complaints until I'd paid last quarter, if I were you. They'll only turn you out."

"I think not. I make the complaint in their interest. When a tenant in Bloodstone Terrace is acting in a way calculated to bring the whole neighbourhood into disrepute, and depreciate the value of house property, the agents would probably be glad to hear of it."

"Well, you're missing your train. You run off, and don't write any letters until to-night. Then you can talk about it, if you like."

In the evening, at supper, Eliza said she had been down Bloodstone Terrace, and could not see what I was making all the fuss about.

"It is simply this," I said. "St. Augustine's is converted into a laundry, and the front garden used as a drying-ground in a way that, to my mind, is not decent."

"Yes," said Eliza, "that's Mrs. Pedder. The poor woman has to do something for her living. She's just started, and only got one job at present. It would be cruel——"

"Not at all. Let her wash, if she must wash, but let her wash somewhere else. I cannot have these offensive rags flapping in my face when I walk down the street."

"They're not offensive rags. I'm most particular about your things."

"What do you mean?"

"It's your things that she washes. I thought I'd give her a start."

I dashed off half a glass of beer, put the glass down with a bang, and flung myself back in the chair without a word.

"Don't behave in that silly way," said Eliza. "She's a halfpenny cheaper on the shirt than the last woman."

"You need not mention that," I replied. "In any case I shall not complain now. I must bear the burden of any mistakes that you make. I am well aware of it."

"I'll tell her to hang them out at the back in future."

"She can hang them where she pleases. I suppose I can bear it. It's only one more trial to bear. One thing goes after another."

"On the contrary," said Eliza, "she's never lost as much as a collar. There's a smut on your nose."

"It can stop there," I said, moodily, and went out into the garden.



THE "CHRISTIAN MARTYR"

The "Christian Martyr" was what is called an engraving, and a very tasteful thing, too, besides being the largest picture we had. It represented a young woman, drowned, floating down a river by night, with her hands tied, and a very pleasing expression on her face. With the frame (maple, and a gilt border inside) it came to three-and-six. I bought it in the Edgware Road on my own responsibility, and carried it home. I thought Eliza would like it, and she did.

"Poor thing!" she said. "You can see she must have been a lady, too. But frightfully dusty!"

"You can't get everything for three-and-six. If you'd been under the counter in a dirty little——"

"Well, all right! I wasn't complaining; but I like things clean." And she took the "Christian Martyr" into the kitchen.

* * * * *

"Where did you mean to put it?" asked Eliza.

"The only good place would be between 'The Charge of the Light Brigade' and 'The Stag at Bay.'"

"What! In the dining-room?"

"Certainly."

"Well, I shouldn't," said Eliza. "It's a sacred subject, and we use the drawing-room on Sundays. That's the place."

"I think I can trust my own taste," I said. I got a brass-headed nail and a hammer, and began. Eliza said afterward that she had known the chair would break before ever I stood on it.

"Then you might have mentioned it," I said, coldly. "However, you shall learn that when I have made up my mind to do a thing, I do it." I rang the bell, and told the girl to fetch the steps.

I hung the "Christian Martyr," and was very pleased with the effect. The whole room looked brighter and more cheerful. I asked Eliza what she thought, and she answered, as I expected, that the picture ought to have been in the drawing-room.

"Eliza," I said, "there is one little fault which you should try to correct. It is pigheadedness."

* * * * *

At breakfast next morning the picture was all crooked. I put it straight. Then the girl brought in the bacon, rubbed against the picture, and put it crooked again. I put it straight again, and sat down. The girl, in passing out, put it crooked once more.

"Really," I said to Eliza, "this is a little too much!"

"Then put some of it back."

"I was not referring to what I have on my plate, but to that girl's conduct. I don't buy 'Christian Martyrs' for her to treat them in that way, and I think you should speak about it."

"She can't get past without rubbing against it. You've put it so low. I said it would be better in the drawing-room."

As usual, I kept my temper.

"Eliza," I said, "have you already forgotten what I told you last night? We all of us—even the best of us—have our faults, but surely——"

"While you're talking you're missing your train," she said.

* * * * *

On my return from the city I went into the dining-room and found the picture gone. Eliza was sitting there as calmly as if nothing had happened.

"Where is the 'Christian Martyr'?" I asked.

"On the sofa in the drawing-room. You said yourself that it was only in the way in here. I thought you might like to hang it there."

"I am not angry," I said, "but I am pained." Then I fetched the "Christian Martyr" and put it in its old place.

"You are a funny man," said Eliza; "I never know what you want."

* * * * *

As we were going up to bed that night we heard a loud bang in the dining-room. The "Christian Martyr" was lying on the floor with the glass broken. It had also smashed a Japanese teapot.

"I wish you'd never bought any 'Christian Martyr,'" said Eliza. "If we'd had a mad bull in the place it couldn't have been worse. I'm sure I'm not going to buy a new glass for it."

So next day I bought a new glass myself in the city, and brought it back with me. But apparently Eliza had changed her mind, for a new glass had already been fitted in, and it was hanging in the dining-room, just where it had been before.

As a reward to Eliza I took it down and put it up in the drawing-room. She smiled in a curious sort of way that I did not quite like. But I thought it best to say nothing more about it.



THE PAGRAMS

Properly speaking, we had quarrelled with the Pagrams.

We both lived in the same street, and Pagram is in the same office as myself. For some time we were on terms. Then one night they looked in to borrow—well, I forget now precisely what it was, but they looked in to borrow something. A month afterward, as they had not returned it, we sent round to ask. Mrs. Pagram replied that it had already been returned, and Pagram—this was the damning thing—told me at the office in so many words that they had never borrowed it. Now, I hate anything like deception. So does Eliza. For two years or more Eliza and Mrs. Pagram have met in the street without taking the least notice of each other. I speak to Pagram in the office—being, as you might say, more or less paid to speak to him. But outside we have nothing to do with each other.

* * * * *

It was on Wednesday morning, I think, at breakfast, that Eliza said:

"I've just heard from Jane, who had it from the milkman—Mrs. Pagram had a baby born last night."

"Well, that," I observed, "is of no earthly interest to us."

"Of course it isn't. I only just mentioned it."

"Is it a boy or girl?"

"A girl. I only hope she will bring it up to speak the truth."

I replied that she might hope what we did not expect. So far Eliza had taken just exactly the tone that I wanted. But as I watched her, I saw her expression change and her underlip pulled down on one side, as it were.

"Well," I said rather sharply, "what is it? These people are nothing to us."

"No. But—it reminded me—our little girl—my baby—that died. And I——"

Here she put down her knife and fork, got up, and walked to the window. There she stood, with her back to me.

I had a mind to speak to her about the foolishness of recalling what must be very upsetting to her. But I said nothing, and began to brush my silk hat briskly. It was about time that I was starting for the city.

I went out.

Then I came back, kissed Eliza, and went out again.

* * * * *

I was a little surprised to find Pagram at the office.

"I should have thought you'd have taken a day off," I said.

"Can't afford that just now," he replied, in rather a surly way.

"All well at home?"

"No."

"By my watch," I said, "that office clock's five minutes slow. What do you make it?"

"Don't know. Left my watch at home."

I had noticed that he was not wearing his watch. Later in the day I had some more conversation with him. He is quite my subordinate at the office, and I really don't know why I should have taken so much notice of him.

* * * * *

When I came back that night I was in two minds whether to tell Eliza or not. She hates anything like extravagance, and if I told her I felt sure she would be displeased. At the same time, if I did not tell her, and she found it out afterward, she would be still more displeased. However, I decided to say nothing about it. I was a little nervous on the point, and I own that my conscience reproached me.

As I came into the hall, Eliza came down the staircase. She was dressed for going out, and had a basket in her hand. She said: "I want you to let me go over to the Pagrams to see if I can do anything. She and the baby are both very ill,—the nurse has had no sleep,—they've no one else to help them. And—and I'm going!"

"Now, do you think this is necessary, Eliza?" I began. "When you come to consider the position we've taken up with regard to the Pagrams for two years, and the scandalous way in which they——"

Here I stopped. The hall door was shut, and Eliza had gone, and it was not worth while to continue.

"Now," I thought to myself, "it's ten to one that Eliza finds me out, and if she does, she'll probably make herself unpleasant." However, I determined not to trouble myself about it. If it came to that, I flattered myself that I could make myself as unpleasant as most people when any occasion arose.

* * * * *

It was hours before Eliza returned. She burst into the room and said, "They're both better, and the baby's a beauty, and I'm to go back to-morrow afternoon."

"Indeed!" I said. "I don't know that you're not going a little too far with these people."

"Do you think so? I've found you out. You didn't tell me, but Pagram did. You lent him three pounds this morning. We can't afford that."

"Well, well," I said; "I've managed to get some overtime work, to begin next week. That—that'll come out all right. You ought to leave these business matters to me. Anyhow, it's no good finding fault, and——"

"Does Pagram generally return what's lent?"

I lost my temper and said that I didn't care a damn! And then—just then—I saw that she was not really displeased about it.

"Why," she said, "you silly! I'm glad you did it. The poor things were at their wits' end, and had got—they'd got nothing! You've saved them, and I never have liked anything you've done half as much as this."

Here Eliza burst into tears—which is really very unusual with her.



PROMOTION

How true it is, as one of our English poets has remarked, that it is always darkest before the silver lining!

While this little work was actually in the hands of the printers, an incident occurred of such great and far-reaching importance that I cannot refrain from making it the subject of an additional paper. I can give it in one word—promotion.

It came at a time when I was suffering from great depression and considerable irritation, as I have already indicated in my opening remark. It was on a Wednesday morning, and those who know me know that invariably on Sunday, Wednesday, and Friday I put on a clean shirt. The number may seem excessive, and perhaps out of proportion to my income, but I own without shame that I am careful as to my personal appearance. I must also add that I am very particularly careful—and, I think, rightly—on the question of the airing of linen.

All I said was that I should put on that shirt, whether Eliza liked it or not, and that it would probably give me my death; but that it did not matter, and perhaps the sooner it was all over the better. There were circumstances under which life was hardly worth living, and when one's express injunctions were continually disregarded, one began to despair.

Eliza spoke quite snappishly, and said that my linen was always properly aired, and that I was too fussy.

I replied, without losing my temper, that there was airing and airing. Even now I cannot think that Eliza was either just or accurate.

* * * * *

At breakfast-time one or two other little circumstances occurred to put me out. A teacup which is filled so full that it overflows into the saucer is a perfect thorn in the flesh to me. So is bacon which is burnt to a cinder. I hardly did more than mention it, but Eliza seemed put out; she said I did nothing but find fault, and as for the bacon, I had better go into the kitchen and find fault with the girl, for it was the girl who had cooked it.

"On the contrary," I said, "in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred when a servant does wrong it is her mistress who deserves the censure."

"Go it!" said Eliza, an expression which I do not think to be quite ladylike. "And if a hansom-cab runs over you in Oxford Street, you go and get the damages out of the Shah of Persia. That's the line to take."

This answer exasperated me by its silliness, and I had quite made up my mind not to say another word of any kind during breakfast. Indeed, but for the fact that I had not quite finished my bacon and that I hate waste, I should have got up and walked out of the room there and then.

A little later I happened to look up, and it struck me from Eliza's face that she might be going to cry. I therefore made a point of saying that the butter was better than we had been having lately, and that it looked like being a fine day after all. Anything like weakness is repellent to me, but still, when one sees that one's words have gone home, one is justified in not pressing the matter further.

Still, I am prepared to own that I started for the city in but low spirits, and with no inclination to join in the frivolous conversation that was going on in the railway carriage. On arriving at the office I was surprised to find that Figgis, our head clerk, was not there. He gave me the tonic port, and was inclined to be dictatorial, but I must confess that he was always a most punctual man. I was very much surprised.

* * * * *

Our senior partner, Mr. Bagshaw, came much earlier than usual,—10.30, to be precise,—and sent for me at once. He is a big, fat man; he speaks in short sentences, and breathes hard in between them. At the moment of entering his room I was as certain that I was about to be sacked as I have ever been of anything that I did not really know. I was wrong.

He made me sit down, glared at me, and began:

"Yesterday evening we detained Mr. Figgis for a few minutes. At the end of our interview with him he left this office for ever, never to return—never!"

I said that I was very much astonished.

"We weren't. We've known there was a leakage. People knew what we were doing—people who oughtn't to know. He sold information. We put on detectives. They proved it. See?"

I said that I saw.

"So you've got Figgis's place for the future. See?"

At that moment you might have knocked me down with a feather; it was so absolutely unexpected. Give me time, and I think I can provide a few well-chosen words suitable to the occasion as well as any man. But now I could think of nothing to say but "Thank you."

He went on to explain that this would mean an immediate rise of L75, and a prospective rise of a further L75 at the end of a year if my work was satisfactory. He said that I had not Figgis's abilities, of course, but that a very close eye had been kept on me lately, and I had shown myself to be honest, methodical, and careful in details. It was also believed that I should realize the importance of a responsible and confidential position, and that I should keep the men under me up to the mark.

The rest of our conversation was concerned with my new duties, and at the close of it he handed me Figgis's keys—my own name and the office address had been already put on the label.

I should not be fair to myself if I did not make some reference to Mr. Bagshaw's comparison of Figgis's abilities and my own. I will merely state the fact that on more than one occasion Figgis has gained success or avoided failure from suggestions made to him by myself. That he did not give me the credit for this with the firm is precisely what I should have expected from a man of that character. However, I have my opportunity now, and the firm will see.

* * * * *

When I returned to the clerks' office I found one of the juniors playing the fool.

"I wish you'd stop that, please," I said, "and get on with your work."

"Who gave you the right to give orders here?" he asked me, rudely.

Fortunately, that was what I had expected he would say, and therefore I had my answer ready:

"Mr. Bagshaw did, three minutes ago, when he made me head of this department in place of Mr. Figgis."

And without another word I went calmly to Mr. Figgis's desk and unlocked it. The effect was remarkable, and gave me great pleasure. During the luncheon hour I received several congratulations, and was pressed to partake of liquor. But I had long ago made up my mind that if the firm ever did place me in a good and responsible position, I would give up alcohol during business hours altogether. I carried out that resolution, and shall continue to do so; Figgis, with all his so-called abilities, was frequently drowsy in the afternoon. Apart from that, I hope I was not wanting in geniality. I snatched a few moments to telegraph to Eliza: "Meet train to-night. Very good news for you."

On my way to the station I purchased a small bottle of champagne,—it cost half a crown, but the price for this wine is always pretty stiff. I also took back with me in my bag a tinned tongue and some pears.

Eliza was waiting for me, and was obviously excited. She had guessed what had happened.

"Got Figgis's berth?" she said.

"Yes. Let's get off the platform as soon as we can. Everybody's looking at us."

We walked home very quickly, Eliza asking questions all the way, and looking, as I noticed, quite five years younger. After what I have said as to my purchases, I need not add that supper that night was a perfect banquet.

We had a long discussion as to our future, and did not get to bed until past eleven. I was at first in favour of taking a rather better house, but Eliza thought we should do more wisely to spread the money over making ourselves more comfortable generally. When she came to go into it in detail, I found that on the whole hers was the preferable course. New curtains for the drawing-room are to be put in hand at once. The charwoman is to come regularly once a week. We raised the girl's wages a pound, and she went into hysterics. Eliza has insisted that I am to have a first-class season-ticket in future. There is much can be done with L75.

On the whole, about the happiest evening of my life.

THE END.

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